Sublimity, Scale, Smallness

“But what if we were to combine such ideas by giving control over to the residents and surrounding communities. Well then I believe that the ideas of developing resilient, utopian communities becomes a very real possibility. Big is sublime, but those within can construct the small is beautiful ethos that shapes truly resilient communities”[1]. Maybe, maybe not. My earlier ruminations on the combinatory potential of brutalist planning with decentralised localised control suggested a premonitory ability for grand visions to mix (rather than collide) with residential or municipal ambitions. To create spontaneity from planning. Of course this is entirely possible in the built environment but then what isn’t. The problems that were faced by housing developments built in 1950s/60s Britain are no fault of the architectural principles (no matter how utopian they were) but instead a consequence of governmental mismanagement that, in a similar way to my quasi-utopian advocacy, advocated that if you built it everybody would be happy to self-regulate.

Shadows wouldn’t presage crime, stairways wouldn’t develop drug dens and territorial conflict. But of course shadows have always existed, as has crime and gangs. And the reality of architectonic machinations is that all are in their own ways susceptible (if not inevitably so) to decay, reformation and potential death[2]. The shopping malls are being abandoned for internet consumer communities that provide much greater, and convenient, fulfilment. In attempting to recreate the good old days of big-box containerisation and shopping extravaganzas, places like Wal-Mart have moved into the business of experience, retail as third space, “which try to humanize suburban parking lots”. However “they start to look a lot like typical shopping malls. Acres of parking remain, and huge arterial roads act as moats that prevent pedestrians from easily travelling beyond Walmart’s property”[3]. Retail becomes militarised territorial control. Customers movements must be monitored and controlled so as to maintain a competitive advantage and predict what they want before they want it. Advertising moves into architecture as Wal-Marts become areas of shimmering ponds and pop-up shops, attempting to inspire loyalty, creativity and innovation all under the moniker of corporate sloganeering in lieu of prices not going down infinitely.

Either that, or the spaces that once housed homogeneous shop fronts and walkways with fountains are replaced in their decay by data centres[4] for the purposes of processing power, cryptocurrency mining and the ability map and quantify the intercursive flows of money, capital and internet traffic. It is militarism and logistics that define these architectural imaginings and foreclosures. Capital is a means of securitisation as its power “relates most directly to the occult permanence of the state of siege, to the appearance of fortified towns, those great immobile machines made in different ways”[5]. Fortresses have been replaced by factories and packing centres. Bunkers and shelters by consumer communities and shopping experiences (both online and offline). Military bases by logistics centres that favour the increasing speed of product movement and creation across all manner of transport modes so as to ensure customer loyalty. Oligopolistic competition is warfare through economistic means. The attempt to forge loyalties and communicate needs moves from state propaganda to advertising and data logistics. Instead of shielding citizens from bombs you shield your consumers from fake news, false advertisement, malware and spyware, spam and many other postmodern nightmares that effect our blue screens and worldly perceptions.

“Supermarket shelves, for example, are a human interface to a vast internet of things: a network of supply-chain, demand-chain and customer-relationship management softwares, steel containers, offshore factories, inter-modal exchange protocols — all forming an unimaginably complex, robust and nimble assembly of everyday purchase commands with vast economies of production and distribution. Today’s ‘fleets-in-being’ are the exabytes and gigatons of component inventories in permanent transit, hurtling between trade zones as the consumable artifacts of their sponsoring corporations’ technological and legal efficiencies. Finally, these (disin)corporations and their far-flung suppliers of parts, labor, and expertise, guard nothing so dearly as the legal agency of brands , those operational fictions which they so carefully embed into the demographically-microsegmented experiential touch-points of everyday life. This ‘flat world’ imagines itself as slippery, oceanic grid modulated by differentially transporting, activating, internalizing, and/or prophylactically exteriorizing technologies: from shipping ports to aerotropoli, from banking software GUIs (graphical user interfaces) to web browser layout engines and data security protocols. Like an Andreas Gursky photograph, this ‘frictionless’ landscape of interconnected objects and subjects is the constitution of a new architecture, one that relies on fragile alibis of virtual immateriality and procedural transparency to achieve the political, economic efficacy it enjoys. The reality of its performance, however, is also a uncontrollable accumulation of — very real and opaque — unintended consequences”[6].

And of course this vast logistical interface is no less militaristic. Navies guard the shipping lanes and ports. Governments direct excises, customs and taxes through coercive apparatuses i.e. pay up or face monetary and military sanctions (these sanctions being practically indistinguishable as without monetary means or recognition you are little more than a vagrant or in, the case of a corporation, a rogue actor). Infrastructure is laid through public-private engineering corps and guaranteed through general taxation.

These production lines and product facilities (supermarkets, shopping malls, online retailers) come with their own requirements. Service agreements, customer data lock-ins and in-house perks that encourage loyalty and staying power. A product draft rather than a military one. As Virilio notes “the communal fortress is a city machine” that creates a “permeable membrane between the highway and the street”[7], dictating movement and determining inside from outside, citizen from barbarian, loyalty from the alien. In a similar manner the consumer communities of modern internet retailers and big-box stores are dictators of product movement and determiners of loyalty amongst their contingent bases. They produce architectonic variants that maintain how long someone stays and partially determine why someone stays. Glorified shopping communities with promenades and picturesque shop fronts or websites with friendly interfaces and customer-specific analytics that show you products you might want. Behind these are a vast machine of autonomised logistics whose whole purpose is to speed up the time from product innovation to sales. The securitisation of consumption through guaranteed-product lines; subsidised prices reliant on union busting and temporary employment contracts; monopolising suppliers; the creation of brand identities that entail loyalty and returned custom; and the use of space to inculcate customers within an ensconced experience where there movement is directed through advertising and shop floor design.

“When Norman Angell states in The Great Illusion that war has become economically futile because it is no longer founded on flight at the expense of the ‘exterior group,’ in other words on portable wealth , but rather, henceforth, on credit and the commercial contract, he is mistaken in thinking that this must radically suppress the ‘conqueror’; his discourse is somewhat lacking in rigor. In fact, what is revealed by this change in the nature of wealth is only a change in the speed of world economy, the passage from the movable unit to the hourly unit: the war of Time. With the fleet in being, England concentrates its efforts on technical innovation in the domain of transportation, and more precisely on the manufacture of rapid engines. It draws from this both its economic superiority and the orientation that made it the first great industrial nation, the model for all the others — engendering ‘that primordial feeling of technical superiority that gets confused with a feeling of general superiority.’ In fact, there was no ‘industrial revolution,’ but only a ‘dromocratic revolution;’ there is no democracy, only dromocracy; there is no strategy, only dromology. It is precisely at the moment when Western technological evolutionism leaves the sea that the substance of wealth begins to crumble, that the ruin of the most powerful peoples and nations gets under way”[8]. Dromology as Virilio conceives is that of the speed of pure movement. Movement of peoples, war, capital and other intercursive mechanisms for the production of efficiency and the means of accumulation/expansion. The attempt to beat or at least outrun ephemerality and decay.

With it comes a series of “fractal panopticons”[9] with their own tracking and logging systems that molecularise control across apparatuses. In the realm of trade and logistics single customs windows, free trade zones, non-customs port entries, logistics centres are part of the panopticon armature, creating a full field of arrays that log product origin, movement, price and speed of production to sale, providing information for the purposes of governance and control by the variable set of actors involved in this system, from states and quangos that build the infrastructure to corporations that use it for logistical information and understanding competition, and NGOs and trade unions that use this is a portal for criticism and reform.

Architecture is but one of these apparatuses that suggest control of flows. Built space being that that both inspires awe and maintains functionality. The city wall as the membrane determining functional citizenship. The fortress and the siege (depending on which one wins) determining victory over barbarity. “All social power is partially derived from the actual possession of physical instruments of coercion, economic or martial. But it also depends to a large degree upon its ability to secure unreasoned and unreasonable obedience, respect and reverence”[10]. This social power is being vectored into new organisational loci as the power of the nation-state itself decays and is de-containerised. Multinational corporations who breed consumer communities and customer loyalty, using logistical flows for the purpose of maintaining oligopolistic control (just look at Amazon[11]). Narco-traffickers who control drug flows, thus partially controlling addiction (breeding an indirect and perverse form of loyalty). Paramilitary organisations who either through ideological strength or technological shifts produce new forms of coercive control. Internet communities who breed tribalism. Cities that become battlespaces for political control and “homeostatic planning”[12]. The nation-state is finding itself placed in an increasingly heterogeneous and shadowy arena, being decentred as decay of its organisational apparatuses begins to eat away at its functionality. The picture of a postmodern political landscape that Geraghty paints is one of the groups I’ve just mentioned cultivating loyalty against or interstitially within nation-states, slowly pulling away intercursive flows from their grasp into new socio-economic scales[13].

Space as militarism becomes multi-scalar as the organisational loci of nation-states and international institutions evolve and devolve into different patterns of control, from municipalities and narco-states to intentional communities and non-geographic groupings organised over cyberspace. The competition of war moves into other intercursive mechanisms of information, technological space and logistical trade. These new organisational forms and architectural planning attempt to control or record these intercursive flows, acting as membranes to maintain the semblance of power and securitise particular flows to legitimate their coercive oversight. Brutalism as originating from cathedrals of war or smallness as the attempt at harvesting localised control in a world of mass industrial and social organisation are both attempts at the control of flows by structuring how people move, interact and consume. They control which products are bought (e.g. local production for local use) and how habits and desires are developed and encouraged.

Going back to the original quote that contrasted and attempted to combine small is beautiful ideology with sublime architecture, it shows that the important things to note are that decay or organisational entropy are inevitable circumstances that remove control and free intercursive flows from their trappings. Dromology suggests the increasing speed of “a meta-systemic multiplication of systems through fragmentation and division”[14]. Control is scalar and thus multi-organisational depending on the scale. Brutalist architecture and the control over these housing estates shows this on a micro-scale. “Brutalist architecture did not seek to represent geological formations. It sought to create buildings that matched such formations, even challenged them. Mankind could take on nature and win”[15]. It thus attempted to beat the decay, forgetting that nature is nothing if not ephemeral. However beauty in smallness is no tonic to this. For as much as I proselytised local control in my previous essay, smallness comes in many forms, some much darker than those I mentioned. While experimental intentional communities provided outlets for difference that encouraged forms of innovation of the use of space, forging camaraderie in places as ubiquitous as shopping malls, communes and housing complexes, it can also encourage brutal forms of populism to emerge.

With the advent of “glocalization”[16], a prefabricated form of homogeneity with a local face, identity and meaning-making are increasingly fraught, splitting between the various governance forms I previously described. The local no longer means much as it is wrought into global cities and suburbs that encourage generalised transport links and homogeneous houses sat side-by-side or row-on-row. Identity is corporatised or bureaucratised as people become part of a milieu that is meant to move, dromologically, in step with logistical patterns. Look at HS2 as a perfect example of this glocal phenomenon. A rail project designed to take Britain back to the 20th century (when most high-speed rail links were developed), keeping up with international transportation innovations and encouraging even more movement from the hinterlands into London, further homogenising the population. It does this through increased capacity i.e. the ability to shove more lambs into the slaughter truck or rail carriage, while at the same time militaristically scything through British countryside in the attempt to create a transportation revolution that will most likely be overtaken in 5 years.

Brutalism in its government-funded guise was one way of moving past this, creating new identities in the post-war era. “Newness and change were bound to be for the better. When Harold Macmillan announced in 1957 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’, some of our people were still living in caves (in the Severn valley), and many of our people had no bathrooms and shared outdoor toilets. Built along brutalist lines, new flats had all those amenities, plus central heating, and were welcomed by their occupants. Social-housing projects were not yet bins for sociopaths. But they would soon become so: if blocks are unguarded, if there are no janitors, if they are not maintained … You don’t buy a car and never get it serviced”[17]. However through mismanagement, decay and ghettoisation is precisely what occurred. The communities of complexes, rather than breeding innovation, bred solitariness and the air of a prison. One where poor city workers and vagrants were meant to congregate. The complexity of governing people was ignored, and the architectural innovation was left to rot.

But smallness itself ignores the same complexity. Populism as cultural sovereignty views governance as an “all-or-nothing entity that when traded away or shared is diminished”[18]. It is informed by small-man politicians who encourage a simplistic view of what a country or a community is. The type of politician that decried brutalist architecture as it ran roughshod over the city-suburb divide. The type of politician who today views the nation in a similar light, as that that controls all intercursive flows. Think Farage, Trump, Salvini. All of whom define pro-Britain, pro-America, pro-Italy as unquestioning faith in the indissolubility of a nation-state. That ignores the decay of structures and the constant change inherent in cultural and social complexities. That encourage the kind of zeal that knocks down all forms of cultural alterity, whether they be buildings or people. A decentralised quasi-sovereign violence that begins with notions of place, kin and settlement, developing into a simplistic dichotomy of securitisation that defines inside/outside or citizen/alien. Lynch mobs, vigilantism, the clearing of ghettoes, the homogeneity of concentration camps on the city limits. Smallness in this sense can breed death through its inability to recognise or ingratiate complexity (of governance, culture and flow).

Complexity, however, is a difficult thing to grasp and even more difficult to control. Brutalism with government backing largely failed, leaving in its wake concrete monuments and cathedrals of war that represent the move from war as politics by other means to intercursive control and oligopoly as war by logistical means. And despite my earlier proselytising smallness or localism are not in and of themselves solutions either. They can certainly develop new methods of good governance, but can also breed populist fervour and moronic simplification that panders to the lowest common denominator. This is militarism of a different kind, away from garrisons and logistics centres toward street marches and revolutions that never revolutionise. Rather than controlling complexity, it reduces or ignores it, favouring a one-size-fits-all narrative. The reality is that complexity eats away at adaptivity and governance, making everything ephemeral. The degree to which negentropy can be realised is dependent upon the ability for governance and organisational loci to recognise how little can be known, creating structures that are anti-fragile and open to change brought by logistical or intercursive flows. As society continually moves from the flows of warfare to the flows of economy that attempt “to map the future as logistical quantification does, attempting to see into the unknowable and predict the accidents and evolutionary developments (which it never will), forms of ‘logisticality’ come forth that sit in-between the paradox of predicting the future and producing its unpredictabilities”[19]. From this logisticality new forms of scale will emerge that require new methods for intercursive flows to be controlled and which entail the decay of previous methods. Whether these are in the fields of nation-states, multi-national retailers, architectural design or other governance methodologies, intercursive flows of capital, warfare and people will ensue “breaking apart the negative use of the disjunctive imposed by the despotic state and pushing things towards cosmic schizophrenia”[20]. Here sublimity and smallness are subsumed to scalarity and fragmentation.

And as scale becomes the defining characteristic of sovereignty, forming conditions where it is multiplied creating new clades and rhizomes, the militarism of place metastasises to the militarism of time, particularly as the speed of production, logistics and consequently warfare and the battlespace are increased dromologically. Here movement becomes the definitional variable, whether that be the movement of goods to their destination of sale and consumption or the movement of troops in battlespaces, constantly attempting to outmanoeuvre enemies and anticipate attacks. In this sense the architectonic nature of sovereignty and space is cracking as intercursive flows in the spheres of logistics and capital are turbocharged beyond human comprehension, with time and scale becoming membranes for attempted control. From this new architectural and organisational possibilities are borne that endeavour to enter circuits of flows of capital, goods and people, developing new methods of coercion and unreasonable obedience that further variable levels of social control across governance scales. “Pieces are basic. To conceive them following from wholes is confusion, produced by unsustainable universalistic frames. Any perspective that can actually be realized has already been localized by serial breakages. Nothing begins with the whole, unless as illusion. Today, we know this both empirically and transcendentally. Anything not done in pieces is not done in profound accordance with reality”[21]. The basic realities of social control means that the number of scales increase alongside the number of breakages, leading away from both utopian universalism and parochial, populistic isolationism as neither are sustainable in circuits of accelerating flows that spread virally across the social field, forcing adaptation, fragmentation or violent (but futile) resistance.





[5] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics

[6] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics

[7] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics

[8] Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics

[9] Massimo de Angelis, The Beginning of History

[10] Jeff Geraghty, Postmodern Warfare



[13] Jeff Geraghty, Postmodern Warfare, 77-83



[16] Paul Virilio, Open Sky






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s