Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Towards sustainable cultures within the urban grid - review of Andrι Loeckx

It is interesting that Andrι Loeckx uses the term 'ambivalence' when speaking about the kind of culture he sees as a result of the 'flow economy' damaging, reshaping and determining our modern cities. Poetically speaking, 'light' and cities could very well be the next chapter of Andrι Loeckx's excellent analysis. Architectures of cities can let people be touched by light. It is an important source of orientation. I was always glad to leave Berlin and spend some time in Warsaw where again houses had windows, places to look out and so allowed me to follow the journey of the sun through the day. That is not the case in Berlin's one-sided apartments linked to the cruel fact of courtyards reminding one during the winter months of 'darkness at noon'. But that explanation does not yet come to terms on how he understands 'ambivalence'.

Again I would like to resort to an indirect approach. Andrι Loeckx describes cities rightly as being the present built-ups of memory. Even Marx marvelled on how the Athenians had interpreted the oracle of Delphi when the Persians were about to march upon the city and destroy it. The oracle had told them to hide behind wooden walls; at first, this could have been interpreted as building a defensive wooden wall between Athens and Piraeus, but to the Greek mind of those days that seemed not to be logical, given the fact that the Persians could easily shoot burning arrows in the direction of the wall and hence transform the besiegement of Athens very quickly into 'total' victory. Instead the Athenians took to the ships, recounts Marx, because it was hiding behind wooden walls, but not in reach of those arrows. As a result, the Persians came and destroyed the city of Athens, but after they had left, the Athenians returned and rebuilt the city because the memory of how it had been built, had not been destroyed. Thus I think Andrι Loeckx is correct in putting a focal emphasis upon 'culture' being directly connected with destruction and construction. Urban structures built on memory mean things are always more complex and far reaching. While the identities formed accordingly in the process make available those things that took place in the past, they remain open or differentiated, indeed 'ambivalent' as to judgement of future perspectives. This gives rise to quite different models of behaviour, and they allow a greater freedom of choice within the very structures they helped to create.

These structures are inevitably linked to our modern understanding of democracy, or the kind of public life, as Andrι Loeckx would describe it, that allows discussions, choices, rejections, distances and closeness, in short a synthesis in the making. In Ancient Greece, that was the 'polis' at its best and worst moments of political life (when thinking of the many who were expelled or when no one listened any more to the 'voice of reason', especially at the beginning of the Peleponesian war). Such a critically reflected upon 'polis' as model of democracy is hardly imagined to exist right now nor does it seem possible to connect decision making processes at all European levels in a democratic manner, especially in milieus closing themselves in around symbolic identities reproduced with the help of obscure mythical linkages. The European Union is trying to reshape these entities through all kinds of 'networks', including that of villages, but the implications of Andrι Loeckx are clear: our cultural problems reside in the cities undergoing tremendous changes. Public space and hence political life is disappearing; much depends on invisible networks governed by the logic 'take it or leave it' (Bart Verschaffel). The impact of that upon our search for identity as 'Europeans' becomes only now visible in such analysis as Andrι Loeckx's. The kind of 'poetic sense' which we are able to give, that will be greatly determined on how we manage to resolve the questions raised by his analysis. For instance, he wonders why people are nowadays satisfied with a house having a lawn in front, but no immediate connection to an avenue, a square or other public places with historical significance. He sees that kind of suburban life resulting out of the fact that the historical city could no longer accommodate all the pressures stemming from more and more modernisation's transforming of all landscapes, cultural ones or not.

This is to say, that many places are devoid of any meaning (Tafuri) or 'illusions'. To give them back some meaning or 'illusions' people need to still continue living there, thus that might be a call upon the poets to contribute. Through their sense perceptions, they might still discover some 'poetry of life', where others found nothing. Even a 'cultural action' like a poetry symposium in a village of Crete confronted immediately the problem: how to continue these activities, so that interest in the village gives especially the youth some perspective to stay on, that is continue living there, in belief that they can network themselves in with the rest of the world. The illusion of modern technology & communication is exactly that, namely independent of time and place, one can get into contact with anyone in this world. Yet the problem of the village life remains acute. At least, here in Greece, the youths tried to escape until very recently the narrow confines of the village, as long as bounded by only one value oriented models, namely 'this is how your ancestors did it, so you must do it now'.

Indeed, the shift in democratic life to European cities has had as its inherent quality 'choice', a freedom to decide with whom to live together, make contact with, show something, etc.. This choice makes at the same time by nature life more 'abstract' (Karl Popper) and may even over demand the individual in finding a 'partner' for life. The greater uncertainty in this respect is reflected by people never marrying, that is, they stay single or else divorce very quickly. Only language seems to guide them as to where to find still their orientation (Claude Levy-Strauss), replacing, as it were the ancient 'totems and taboos' (Freud; Frazer). Cultural movements in such a context have, therefore, as a prime interest the promotion of the erotic qualities of life, that is the possible 'binding' force between people needed so as to escape loneliness and to find some lasting connection with the other, who can be anything from partner, random passenger sitting beside one in the subway, to a desired object of all kinds of projections including jealousy and hatred. Since James Joyce, there has entered a note of 'indifference' with whom one happens to be with at the moment.

Here I find brilliant on how Loeckx perceives the conflict in 'edge cities' where those with stable incomes either move out or else never move in, leaving an ageing population to feel all of a sudden threatened in their 'territory' by indigenous people moving in, that is, people who are more resourceful and who put on the lights of the streets again. In a recent visit to London, I could perceive such an urban setting: old ladies peeping from behind old fashioned curtains, while the children from the Bahamas played soccer in the streets. The ancient architectural line of row houses with front lawn seemed no longer to match either the colour in the streets nor that of the horizon above. Things have become rather disjuncted or else misplaced, while the 'myth of neighbourhoods' has been replaced in reality by fast shifting survival strategies encompassing entire areas in one sweep, while the very next day nothing seems to happen. Only sleepy dogs don't even bother to chase a cat walking by. However, from inside one house across the street music pounds out heavy rhythms by someone exploiting the newly digital techniques built into stereo-sets.

These observations touch upon not only survival strategies within the 'urban grid' in the making, but directly upon weakness and strength in terms of unity versus fragmentation. For the 'myth of life', whether in the city or in a village, boils down to what Camus called the projection of the desired 'unity' upon the other due to the thought one does not have that unity any longer oneself. Indeed, hidden strengths or weaknesses are at play when people see others spending apparently their times doing nothing, while they themselves work as hard as possible and still sweat in fear of not being able to pay the rent at the end of the month. They forget where strength comes from: hidden, indirect or direct support from others. As a result, there is a lot of 'myth', i.e. false projections, in circulation, while behaviour is still affected by quite other factors. It is not only Milton Friedman's theory to make predictions of consumer behaviour depend upon life-long incomes, that has changed and radicalised the strategies of all financial institutes involved in making more money, but something else has altered the inherent character of a city's life. The structures which one depends upon exceed by far the limits of the senses, while there is not enough information nor 'dialogue' to deal with what is feared and hence subject to a wild imagination, if not paranoiac feelings. That panic is also the realisation that the place where one lives, is no longer shaped by forces one still controls or has any influence upon. Rather the entire exploitive situation mediating between short-term survival needs and long-term factors affecting 'social behaviour', has made people become afraid. They see the world as being 'hostile', not friendly. It is only consequently, that they see developments in a different 'light'. Things seem to change overnight, even historical landscapes or famous street corners are transformed within such a short time space, that it becomes difficult to articulate any kind of clear orientation. That is essential the hardship of contemporary city life: to overcome so many blank or grey areas of no longer knowing what to do in the light of forces affective adversely the urban landscape.

It is these spaces of 'grey light', when compared to the kind of 'light' prevailing in an open world like Greece, even in Athens, that I would like to link with Loeckx's concept of 'urban ecology', meant to tap upon spaces of the 'edge city' in his wish that cultural actions work towards securing 'sustainable' urban grids. To make something 'self-sustainable' by bringing culture and economy together, that may be indeed the central concept of this seminar. I could only add here that a poet like Brendan Kennelly would be interested immediately to talk about 'the myth of the city' in the light of what people express, including those children living in card-board boxes in the streets of Dublin. A theme for a possible discussion between poets and architects, city planners etc. could then be 'light and space' or 'the myth of the city as the anti-city myth'. It might be a far fetched generalisation of what identity formation seems to be possible, but the notion that as much light as false myths play a key role, that cannot be so easily disputed. A poetic sense for the reality in the otherwise mythical connotation of 'light' could help along the way in shaping and using those 'grey areas' of fragmented cities.

The usage of 'myth', translated by poetry into prospects of living within a specific context, shows that our senses can speak again to us, provided we reflect critically what has become of us without yearning for some nostalgic past in which apparently everything was 'one' and beautiful. This means interests in 'unity' at the European level cannot ignore the 'cultural need' to overcome within our modern urban context the 'fragmentation' of the city. This kind of fragmentation which we experience equally in ourselves has been described by A. Camus as the need for a 'myth of unity'. Often that has been projected upon past cultures suggesting great personalities were then at 'one' with themselves while able to unify all others, i.e. Alexander the Great. However, if that is but a projection, then one basic maxim must be outlined when it comes to explanations of life in contemporary history. Explanations should have nothing to do with legends of so-called great personalities, because they narrate only unchanging traits of some incidence or habitual life form (Ernst Bloch). It is natural that such legends flourish in especially rapidly changing contexts, because they appear to give some illusion of stability or strength. Right wing ideologies are the best examples of producing all kinds of legends, the greatest one being that it is radical to oppose all changes, while changing radically everything else which would stand in the way of this conviction. That is not appreciation of life, but a sign of death, the fear thereof included. Myths, on the contrary, convey a meaning of change due to the rich depths of the story itself leading to many new potentialities. Their inherent nature is to make possible re-interpretations: stories told anew with reference to the past, but in a new and unique context. As Andrι Loeckx said it, that is within the urban context or 'grid' a "process of identity formation ... propelled by a tension between uniqueness and sameness".

Here is then where I would have some serious questions to Andrι Loeckx about "Urban place and flow" being a "culture of ambivalence", despite reference to cities having some "rootedness in centuries-old history" and the possibility of creating a kind of 'network' with other cities, such as in the region of Flanders. As stated already above, his analysis begins with urban developments being really a synthesis of European cultures, that is before the 'historical city' could not longer cope with modernisation pressures and through the fragmentation of urban space, the 'edge city' was created. But his speech, I am sure you will agree, was so condensed and compactly filled with astute observations and reflections, that many questions remain right now still unresolved as to what implications such an analysis ought to have for our subsequent discussions in the workshops.

These questions relate no doubt to a need to unlock some of the more philosophical derived concepts Loeckx uses such as 'diffΰrence' (Derrida), in order to make possible a fruitful connection between his paper and the discussions especially in workshop 2 on 'regional/urban planning and culture'. Such a need makes my task as co-ordinator, along with Bart Verschaffel whom I have asked to help me tomorrow morning, when we shall attempt a first evaluation of the results of all workshops, even more difficult. We may namely discover that the time available is really not enough to appreciate what he said and still come up with some concrete proposals. But then there is always the possibility that what is not resolved here in Athens, that we try to carry that over to the next seminar, the Sixth one to be held in Munich around November and during the German presidency of the European Union or if not there, then through new forms of 'cultural actions' into the various debates about European integration.

However, briefly something can be said already as to how Loeckx's position can guide us towards some purposeful structuring of our proposals for future 'cultural actions'. It was such an illumination to me, if I understand correctly Andrι Loeckx, when he said towards the end of the paper that what we need is not so much a focus on specific cultural actions per say, but to see what lies ahead, namely a very 'hard debate'. When it comes to try to shape and to save our 'cultural landscapes' (cities or regions) by undertaking responsible cultural actions, rather than giving in to brutal capitalistic interventions which never can be ruled out completely and who will always disturb the 'flow of things' at the least expected moment, we have to convince many more people of the positive power of 'culture'. This difficult 'debate' which lies ahead ties in perfectly with what Europe altogether needs, when it comes to 'cultural actions' at this overall level. For 'cultural actions' must be derived out of a 'cultural consensus' and that requires on our part quite some convincing power at the level of articulation of selves (our unique identities) and arguments for a particular heed to cultural matters. Prof. Picht has given this the concept of 'rational communication'. Andrι Loeckx adds to that the dimension of cities producing 'culture of ambivalence' within which we have to find our way. That makes it necessary that we relate to the 'edge city' existing somewhere between the historical and the fragmented city. There it is where places can be re-used. He calls this 'urban ecology'.

The purpose is to bring about 'sustainable cultures within newly shaped urban grids' emerging like a purposeful pattern out of the positive use of such 'grey' spaces in-between. If we add the need to gain 'self sustainable economies' which support cultural identities at regional level - the initiative of the Flemish government goes in that direction - then we have indeed a key focal point of interest for our proposals to be directed towards and evaluate accordingly. It all depends nevertheless on our understanding of 'culture': mimesis, or more immediate in reference to Loeckx, 'the culture of ambivalence'.

The problem of ambivalence in such a context of analysis I do not want to trace back right now to Heidegger. Loeckx has made a reference in that direction. Rather I want to start with a physical example and come back to 'light' in terms of how we finally perceive things. Camus described the 'ambivalence' of light on the beach in 'L'etranger': 'the sunlight blinded not only him, it bit into his eyes like sand, or was it already the imagined dust of his body after his death, but he did not care to reflect at that moment all these metaphysical questions, nor did he want to confront this silhouette of a figure walking very slowly, almost deliberately slowly towards him, as if to reckon and to challenge him with something he had done in the past, what that he did not know, and so he pulled the trigger of the gun before any further questions could enter his brain already in turmoil because of the confusion this light has caused in him'.

I narrate this story because this ambivalence of perception leads straight to what Husserl called the 'crisis of the European mind' at the beginning of this century and which he tried to explain in terms of our difficulties in perception when standing on one side of the street while looking over to the other side, into a shop window: all of a sudden we are unsure whether or not there stands a window display doll of human size or a real human being; only once the figure moves, do we reassure ourselves, that it is a human being for nothing else can move. This ambivalence means a test of seeing and identifying; while still uncertain, we must be able to wait until further details, i.e. movement, allow us to identify the subject of our perception and react accordingly. By nature, such structures of ambivalence forcing us to wait, can be easily exploited by 'politics', so that we face often a 'fait d' accompli', that is, we realise only the true nature of the matter when it is too late to react. Not so the young women of Algiers who according to Camus burn out their lives at a very early stage in life as a preventive reaction to ambivalence. Before twenty-five they have tasted everything and the rest of their life span is spend caring for the wounds those early burns have left in them.

It is conceivable that the same model of reflection can be applied to changes in cities. Sometimes when new buildings go up, we do not know whether we like it or not. Realistic is the fact, that everything is built on memory, as stressed by Loeckx. That includes lies, manipulation and forgetting. The result is that we are often even less sure whether the direction things are taking, is good or bad. At the edges of everything, so an extended thesis of Loeckx, it could be very much the case that no clear-cut value judgements are possible. Everything in flow is equally 'ambivalent'.

At this point, I would like to ask, however, what is the crucial difference between 'ambivalence' and 'creating potentials', which, if not destroyed by early exploitation, as in the case of the women of Algiers, could grow into mature carriers of a cultured life conveyed by both a strong sense of purpose and a human compassion? Capitalistic exploitation tends not to heed the need for cultural investments in the future; it is based on wanting everything right now, here and not later on. In other words, caring for life a whole time span is not a matter of resolving 'ambivalence', but developing potentialities inherent in many situations, so that rhythm and conviction in life conveys a meaning out of which can be drunk like an endless river as a refreshing source of fresh water.

That is why I do not think the 'cultural diversity' of Europe can be left only to a new kind management willing to be more imaginative and to go unconventional ways - that sounds to be more of a wish, than really a theory put into practise, even though we have in workshop 5 first attempts to draw management closer to the arts and to start thinking about a 'culturally driven economy'. Their approach will remain one-sided, as long as they are interested only in exploiting this 'trump card' in the competition with other economies at world level (Bekemans), but not really willing to help develop culture by letting, to name just one example, the people working for them really unfold their personalities rather than being trapped in their 'slave languages' spoken within the hierarchies of their work organisations.

I have also difficulties with this recurrent theme of 'cultural identity' having to do with 'rootedness'. As if people are like a tree whose roots are in a 'humus': that history of layers created by human experiences. To my mind the connecting element to the past is the same experience of wonder our ancestors had. The ratios between the known and the unknown change, in particular due to our cultures conveying a lot more memory, although that does not exclude forgetting, as Andrι Loeckx has realistically pointed out. Thus the only convincing thesis in this respect has been according to my opinion Simone Weil's 'rootedness in honesty', that is, in one's own language allowing thoughts to become more concrete, once we say things in all 'honesty', making us more inclined to remember rather than to forget that. It guarantees that truth prevails over a longer time than just one day. This is not at all easy to attain, hence no wonder that Husserl stated at the end of his life spend working on philosophy, that he had forgotten this question about honesty. He admitted, that this is the most difficult one to answer. By contrast, James Joyce seemed to have found in his love to Nora an answer, for it meant to him a radical openness to all questions, thereby going against all complacency's inherent in usual loves having become, with time, pragmatic institutions arranged solely around the convenience of gaining money to live on (Brendan Kennelly).

Hatto Fischer Athens/Spetses 1994/1995

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