Keller Easterling on Where Activism Fails and How We Can Reformat It

Activism in the age of the ‘Superbug’

For nearly two decades, architects and urbanists have joined journalists, social scientists, lawyers, economists and artists in exploring the runaway forms of global development for which no orthodox research methodologies exist. Formulaic, repeatable spaces – from networks of free-zone world cities to distended urban peripheries – make some of the most radical changes to this now hotter, wetter, globalizing world. Even though architects and urbanists have often been as perplexed as any other explorer of these new territories, they may unwittingly provide a meta-offering to the allied disciplines – forms with which to design or actually manipulate them.

In the 1990s, the centrestage stars of globalization might have been digital technologies and international cities of finance, but it was the backstage territory that was most consequential. It included gigantic socio-technical organizations studied by social scientists.

These were not just infrastructural in the most familiar usage of the word. More than transportation, communication or utility networks concealed underground, they were often hidden in plain sight. These were networks of manufacturing and spaces of practice exploiting free trade and information technologies like those that theorist Manuel Castells researched. And, as artist Allan Sekula presciently demonstrated in Fish Story (1989–95), the engine room was not virtual but rather physical, heavy and growing rampantly.

A matrix of repeatable formulas for spaces, and even for entire cities, was suddenly no longer backstage but mimicking the shiny skylines of global cities and posing in promotional shots as the new metropolis. Evidence of this physical reality and its rules of engagement uncovered legally stabilized forms of extreme inequality, labour abuse and environmental damage inoculated against political dissent. 

Perhaps more ossified than the material world, political theory has often tried to analyze emergent power cocktails with the best-rehearsed ideological positions. Meanwhile, the political world was turned upside down. Kingdoms, totalitarian regimes, former colonies and free-floating corporate networks were now in control. As globalization theorist Arjun Appadurai observed, the contours of their power mixtures were more like interpenetrating ‘scapes’ of different sorts. And, as historian of science Rosalind Williams noted, gigantic, repetitive spaces that were everywhere and nowhere completely changed the terms of place-based political activism.

These spaces and the powers that preside over them are often political superbugs, surviving against all odds to generate unchecked concentrations of power, extremes of inequality and climate cataclysms. They might be political leaders in the style of US President Donald Trump or spatial organizations such as the global network of free zones. The most dangerous superbugs have found ways to inoculate themselves against culture’s default responses: reasonable solutions, consistent ideological platforms or the rule of law.

Ideological declarations are insufficient markers or activist tools because, with cross-purposes and discrepant messages, superbugs mix and confuse ideologies. A populist leader espouses decentralization while centralizing power. A social-media platform that purports to be information-rich actually filters information through likes and dislikes that erase information. Left- and right-wing sentiments can both concentrate authoritarian power. Polarized versions of liberalism exist in the camps of both the left and the right. Highly manipulated trade networks of globalization can fly under the flag of ‘free trade’. Or populist-nativist sentiments about ‘bringing jobs back home’ are successful even though they run counter to the massive installations of free-trade cheap labour.

Like the chemist playing with explosive elements, the superbug operates on dispositions – latent potentials for accumulating power. Especially confounding to ideological declaration, the superbug’s lies can create a kind of Teflon, so that even lexical expressions seem to become physical forcefields decoupled from intentions. For instance, when the superbug sows division by amplifying racist sentiments, the ideological activist has no choice but to condemn that racism. But, in the 2016 US presidential election, the toxic mixture of info-prop and reasoned dissent created divisions that delivered Trump. By strengthening an underlying binary, the superbug ensured an outcome opposite to one for which dissenters were agitating.

Just as theories of globalization tried to stuff evidence of the superbug into familiar containers, culture responds with its tragic defaults that favour declarations and righteous, reasonable solutions. Law and econometrics have great authority. Theories tutored by philosophy have gravity. Cultural production for the academic and art worlds is attractive and well-rewarded at a moment of political turmoil precisely because it opens onto a field of critique just as other avenues of political activism shut down. Modernist scripts groom allegiances to the newest technologies – currently, digital technologies. Quantitative expressions galvanize confidence.

But activism in the declarative register frequently does not work against the superbug, and a reliance on any of these languages alone falls neatly into the superbug’s trap. Often, the more the activist agitates within these realms of declaration, the more the noose tightens. Meanwhile, the political superbugs pass off their capacity for violence and destruction to more and more gigantic landscapes and an even broader multitude of irrevocable, planetary and atmospheric environments.

While it has been important to deliver evidence about the globalizing world, reportage is no longer enough. It is not sufficient to continue to find ways to expose or more accurately measure the superbug. It is not enough to labour for the factories of cultural production in the academy or the art world. It is inadequate to express outrage and surprise that those cultural institutions are funded by the very same superbugs that use them as yet another cover in a series of disguises. It is absurd to continue to give special authority to solutionist thinking in legal or quantifiable languages. It is not enough to name the superbug and propose the righteous answer to its environmental forms of violence.

To counter the superbug, with all its engineered immunities, activism can learn to operate dispositionally as well as ideologically. In a dispositional register, rather than privilege any one disciplinary language, practice or venue, activists from any discipline can design an interplay. Using active rather than nominative forms, they not only report and depict but also manipulate chemistries of interactivity – assemblages, networks that might even be time-released. These are the political ecologies and aesthetic practices about which theorists Jane Bennett and Jacques Rancière have written. Harder to contain and target, some of these forms opt not to declare themselves to gain more traction or alter a political temperament. Far from a betrayal of principles, they may even paradoxically seem to be discrepant to a creed to support that creed. Like the parent with squabbling children, the dispositional activist does not litigate the children’s argument but, rather, changes the physical conditions of the room to reduce the capacity for violence.

These kinds of interplay disrupt familiar cultural defaults. They may not come with the same congratulations for finding the right answer but, then, solutions have always been mistakes. Because dispositional changes are often latent and gradient, they may exist outside of the fanfare and celebrity that adheres to venues of cultural production. But these have sometimes become places of self-fulfilling prophesy. They may offer no modern assurances about the superiority of new technologies, such as contemporary digital ones, but these have been shown to deliver crude dispositions compared to a more sophisticated interplay between emergent and incumbent technologies. They may require a strong stomach for conciliatory actions to reduce violence even when a fight is warranted. But the superbug is an expert at using reasonable activist opposition to its own ends.

Culture may favour abstracted legal and quantitative expressions, but in this now wetter, hotter world, the most consequential interplay may be between situated physical conditions in cities and landscapes. Designers might work to reverse-engineer potentials immanent in the formulaic landscapes of globalization. The chemistry of interplay can work with failures or artefacts that those markets have discarded. A need or problem regarded to be a deficit can become a resource. And repetitions built into these landscapes may even provide multipliers to accelerate a change that outwits the superbug’s sleight of hand. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘Activism in the Age of the Superbug’.

Commissioned photography by Philotheus Nisch, 2019. Courtesy: the artist 

Keller Easterling is an architect, writer and professor at Yale University based in New York, USA. She is a 2019 United States Artists fellow. Her project ‘MANY’ is on view at Wrightwood 659, Chicago until 27 April and her forthcoming book Medium Design will be published by Strelka Press in 2020.

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

November - December 2019

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