Power is in the Street: An interview with Julie Murphy Erfani
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Power is in the Street: An interview with Julie Murphy Erfani

| 21 September 2000

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In the streets of Latin America, not its high rises, lies a subtle and tenacious power to resist neoliberal notions of life and economics, Julie Murphy Erfani tells Ian Douglas

Julie, I’d like to begin with your recent experiences in Latin America. In January and February of this year you travelled to Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Santiago. The field research you were doing there was for a forthcoming study on the changing nature of urban politics in those cities, and also Mexico City. Tell us what you found there, and why you think these cities are particularly important at present.
Well, first what I found was that the streets found me. I experienced at every step the incredible power practiced by buildings and streetscapes on ordinary people’s everyday lives in the city. Of course, the powers practiced by architecture are not peculiar to Latin American cities, but the three cities that I’m studying are focal points of urban architectural change in the Americas. There’s an immense process of dislocation and transformation of place going on in these cities as a result of the ideological wave of neoliberalism and free-tradism sweeping through the hemisphere and the socio-economic policies and practices associated with that ideology.
In many respects, the street work I did as the “field research” for the project was a journey in search of myself: Latin America has always been for me a mirror in which we in the US could see more clearly the beauties and horrors, aspirations and failures of ourselves as Americans in the broadest hemispheric sense of the word. This is partly because the neo-colonial projects of the United States in the hemisphere and the world are so alive there but also because indigenous American cultures have survived and reconverted (neo)colonialism in intensely vivid ways. The powers of architecture and streets which I experienced reflected all my greatest fears and hopes for myself caught up in, and steadfastly resistant to, the dislocations of neoliberalism and what is called globalization.

We’ve talked about this before, and you often tell me of small, seemingly inconsequential forms of rearticulation, reconversion, that for you add up to something significant; for example the security guard of one tower or other who uses the roof as a private garden. When you tell me these things I hear hope in your voice; a certain laughter and awe for the ingenuity, dignity and multiplicity of forms of resistance, and also astonishment at the contradictions so clear, yet accommodated in these people’s lives. Yet I can’t help but feel – though the last thing I want to do is to trap these poor souls in my words – that as soon as these buildings appear, that’s the end of something significant. These great steel and glass structures seem to suggest something to me, and I’m not hopeful at all about the possibilities of still living as human beings in front of them. New York is one thing; there it’s a kind of social thrill. But I cannot but feel that elsewhere, perhaps in the cities you’re studying, these buildings become something else: both a form of violence and a permanent police. Is it possible for people to resist the power of buildings? Are there senseless acts of beauty that still can be significant though played out in their shadow?
Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that ultra-modern, fortress banks, corporate towers, and luxury hotels and apartment buildings are indeed forms of violence and policing, as you suggest. I would add that they are vertical bunkers as well. Bunkers in two senses: they embody notions of fortification in at least two ways.
In one sense, these new corporate towers claim, defend, and proliferate the territoriality of neoliberal economic operations vis-à-vis the millions of urban residents in Latin America who pay the staggering human costs of globalization. It is quite odd that bunkers should proliferate in an era of telematics. Paradoxically, however, I have found in Latin America that the more that neoliberal economic operations expand globally through telematic transmissions, the more that global capital seems to build skyscraper bunkers in world cities in order to facilitate urban networks for world business (this may be somewhat parallel to the system of military bases that the U.S. government built in the post-war era of U.S. hegemony). The 1990s skyscrapers house the weapons of global commerce — primarily computers — and also serve as fortified, luxury interfaces and retreats for wargames meetings between executives.
These buildings also fight a visual war in the landscape of the cities. Unlike the underground fortifications of 20th century war-making, the bunkers of neoliberalism are necessarily vertical and visible, often dominating the skylines of the rebuilt centers of Latin American cities. They fortify global commerce visually and culturally through the architectural languages of ultra-modernity. Their designs and materials of steel and reflective glass speak of invincibility, permanence, exclusivity, and the final defeat of antiquity and indigenous difference from the industrial West. To some poor, indigenous residents of the cities, the spectacle of these towers is perhaps as culturally arresting and daunting as the sight of an invading, foreign army.
How to resist the powers of these buildings, then? With difficulty. I think we need to rethink resistance in light of the urban geopolitical, war-making conditions that I described above. I am hopeful that the visual war in cities is not yet won by global commerce. Not all urban graffiti is effectively “channeled” in to designated walls established by the authorities.1 Similarly, street vendors with their vendor architecture on the sidewalks have refused to be interned (like prisoners of war … ) into state-planned marketplace areas far from downtown — urban reservations for street vendors have been tried but have failed in Mexico City, for instance. In terms of resisting the arsenal-like characteristics of these skyscrapers, I sense that the security of such buildings is increasingly at stake. Violence against urban buildings may emerge as an increasingly prominent feature of Latin American urban life. Aesthetic cultural resistance, it seems to me, however, promises to confront neoliberal destruction with an alternative visual permanence that makes it difficult for global capital to erase. Cultural products, then, from architecture to rooftop gardens to murals to graffiti, become the ultimate hope for resistance.

There are three things in what you say here I’d like to pursue: first, you suggest a positive relationship between the increased use of telematics and the emergence of these new urban ‘bunkers’. This to me is a fascinating idea. It’s as though the negative sign of the last great dromological wave — which lead to the disappearance of artillery batteries, firing units, observational posts and the like (the beachhead fortifications of the Atlantic Wall made irrelevant by allied air supremacy, stratospheric rockets, and finally, intercontinental ballistic missiles) — has been met and made positive by extending its force and intensifying its effect (the transportational power of rockets supplanted by the transmissional power of telematics). Something that was at first destructive of the military blockade is now remaking it: these great points of reference in the global matrix (the world trade centres, the corporate towers you study) both dependant upon and in many ways formed by, “the path”, the trajectory (now of information, then of the projectile). If this is indeed the case, it’s a very radical reversal in what would seem from the outside to be a continuum of the technological/dromological direction (the transmissional revolution that extends the transportational one). So the ‘Fortress’, once a victim of the path, reappears as a function of it (the globalization of communications, corporate reach, financial and informational networks, etc.); this time on the urban landscape rather than the coastal one. As land and territory become less important we move from the scale of continental shores, back through the boundaries of nations, down to specific cities, and increasingly specific networks: a set of moves conditioned at each turn by the nature and form of apparent and predominant trajective technologies, their reach, their effect upon real space, and so on. So now, in the age of telematics, it is indeed the smallest spaces which are at stake: the space of everyday life, everyday thoughts in the polis, the city; these new structures not so much indicative of the commercialization and commodification of the South as the general militarization of social space in age of telematics, and all of the people therein. The purest form of warfare is the effect of technology.
The second thing I’d like to comment on in what you said is the question of visibility. This is interesting. For sure not many will have looked at these buildings in the same way that you have; as military outposts, in effect. But at the same time, I think subconsciously, people would recognise what you propose. These buildings don’t hide their function in same way that the asylum, the prison or the factory would once do: in looking alike these early institutions would often become indistinguishable, their exact nature unknown from the outside, blending in as far as possible to the general environment, and within the general system of discipline of which each was part. With the new corporate towers of global capital there is no mistake either in the general message (there is no blurring with other architectural/institutional forms), and there is no dissolution of the force of the message because of this. They have no competition in terms of their actual form. This means that they can look the same (just as the prisons, the factories, the hospitals), but because they are essentially one and the same (unlike prisons, government buildings, police headquarters which have differing functions), the force of the message is pure, a direct line. For the ordinary citizen walking in and around these incredible structures the purity of the message is undeniable; it’s absolutely visible. It goes something like, ‘capitalism won’. It’s not a mixed message, like, ‘we are responsible for your body’ (the hospital), ‘we are responsible for your mind’ (the asylum), or ‘we are responsible for your soul’ (the prison).
But interestingly it would seem, unlike the prison, the manufactory, the hospital, these new towers don’t rely on the power of truth as invested in the voice, the character that speaks. These buildings don’t speak, but get their observants to speak. The message comes from within the subject, not the object, which once was the case of the old institutions. The prison, the asylum could be read from the outside. Though of anonymous form (architecturally similar), once discovered it was clear that one faced an institution. Now, one invariably faces one’s own reflection, and in the very centre of the city. Whereas the nineteenth century institutions were often located on the outside, these new institutions are in the centre, so visible on the skyline as to be almost inescapable. The result is that the voice transmitting the message is no longer a doctor, a psychiatrist, a prison warden or factory foreman, but the ego and the conscience of outside observer. The power of the confessional!
Finally, returning to your comparison with the bunker, I had a question about both the transformative power of these buildings and their strategic place in the overall constitution and reproduction of social order. Your work suggests that the new architecture of the Americas is a weapon and a tactic used by both the urban police and their colonial masters, and transnational capital and the global economy in general. In each case architecture is productive; producing certain modes of behaviour, instilling a certain economy, certain relations of force, etc. While these buildings also work to prevent certain things they do so more by way of what they produce, what they expect in the way of a response, the contrast as it performs positively in the minds of indigenous urban populations. This positive transformative power is held in the actual form of the new urban topology; the place these buildings take in the city. As well as being positive this transformative power in being invested in metal and glass is also anonymous to the extent that the direct line between the forms of social order produced and the functionaries and aficionados of this order are obscured. An interesting effect: the transformative power of these buildings is reproduced in their visibility, yet the beneficiaries and conduits are individually invisible. Perhaps this is in part an explanation for the trend you identify; buildings themselves becoming terrorist targets (in Oklahoma, in New York, in Nairobi, etc.). People blow them up just in order to see who exactly is on the inside.
Yet I wonder about the true nature of this crisis of social struggle, with individuals stunted and denied a point of accountability, and yet faced on a daily basis with the image and the form of these overpowering buildings. Could it be — and this is simply a suggestion — that like we were wrong about the original bunkers (the real war not being waged on the ground, but in the air), might we equally be wrong about these new ones? For it seems to me possible that in addition to structuring movements, possibilities, trajectories, etc., these buildings also serve as a focus of critique; but an impossible one (as a function of its target). As we know these bunkers are equally fortified, able, through advanced design, to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes as well as car bombs and riots. The inanimate has never been easy to assail, and these buildings are less so than ever; their very form and legibility constituting a space where the revolutionary looks entirely out of place. And yet might this be part of their function; like great magnets of forces, of peoples, of ideas? These bunkers like their earlier form attract the attack, while taking attention away from where power really is (in the air, the circuit, the politics, the tyrannies, the disgraces of everyday life). When the state pursues a strategy of diffusion (as it has at least since the classical age) the illusion of centrality comes to hold a social function; it is the illusion that provides a focus for political critique, gathering it once in the parliament, once in the assembly, and now in the street, effectively against buildings. Convenient enemies, permanent forces, visibility a trap, as Foucault suggested, in more than one sense: both in the vision of the skyline and its transformative force (discipline, self-constitution), in the impossibility of hiding from the gaze of these buildings (their omnipresence as a function of their form), and in the channeling of critique to the inanimate and the static, where the real problem in life is the animate and the mobile.
I guess what I would say is that visibility matters: it matters a lot to telematic capitalism. It helps prevent us from seeing what’s going on. The more visible that ultra-modern financial towers become, the less we are able to see about telematic capitalism. I think that one reason why people blow up such buildings is so that they don’t have to look at them anymore. They block one’s view, literally and symbolically.
They provoke multiple blindnesses in their very visuality. What they wish us to see / what they force us to see / is stability, predictability, invincibility, the triumph of global capitalism, as you suggest. The basic impact is this: if we can literally see that invincibility and ultra-efficiency, then it must be true …
What the buildings try to prevent from seeing, among other things, is an insane capital volatility, crippling imbalances of payments, monstrous deficits, impending global tendencies toward collapse, unpredictable-invisible-ever-constant flows of capital and power with devastating consequences on people’s lives.
So, yes, you’re right: visibility is a trap. It is the genius of global capital to invent a new landscape of buildings so that we are unable to see. I call this incredible power over our sight a form of fortification. To produce everyday blindness to the profoundly volatile nature of global finance and commerce is to fortify in aesthetico-physical ways everything about the way world capitalism works. Electronic pulses of money are placeless: they have no attachment to community, to people. But, the buildings construct lies about place-making that are a mile high.
The buildings say: “We are to stay. We are here to take care of you, to ensure the modernity of the economy and its efficient functioning.’ The capital flows are not “here to stay,” though. Not at all. Their nature is to flow all over the world at any time. Electronic pulses of money are not going to speak to people of reassurances of their well-being. The buildings, then, embody all the lies that the electronic pulses cannot.
In cities in Latin American where individual residents are generally not yet wired with personal computers, the reflective tower architecture and the city as whole become the screen. The buildings are like “public” art with a very didactic, state-supportive purpose. What the grand revolutionary public murals of the past did for the state, the buildings and cityscapes now perform. They teach how not to see; how not to understand.
I’ve been on major streets in São Paulo where there were literal, giant screens placed periodically along the length of the commercial avenue. To complement the reflective glass skyscrapers, where one can see nothing but a reflection of oneself, the giant screens were like moving, animate murals teaching people that global commerce has indeed won and seemingly for all time.
So, the buildings deflect the placelessness, volatility, and everyday destructiveness of telematic capitalism. In this sense, they don’t straightforwardly invite attack: they seem to invent place and security and socio-economic well-being for communities that are actually being ravaged by electronic pulses of money. People are less prone to attack what seem to be the basis of their economic future. On the other hand, when the lies are exposed and capitalism revealed as volatile and disloyal, I can imagine people wanting to clear the lies from their line of sight.
In any case, the buildings and the pulses embrace each other. My own intuition is that people like streetwalkers and vendors see through the lies of these buildings immediately.

 

Julie Murphy-Erfani is associate professor in social and behavioural sciences at Arizona State University.

This interview was conducted in 1999 and previously published by the powerfoundation.
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche