The Poiesis symposium will take place in Cambridge on July 25-27 2012. The symposium is the culmination of a three year research project on the making and remaking of cities led by Richard Sennett and Craig Calhoun in partnership with the BMW/Herbert Quandt and Gerda Henkel Foundations. Over three days, the international, interdisciplinary, group of scholars and practitioners involved in the project – from architects and filmmakers to physicists, sociologists and lawyers – will be convened by Cambridge geographer Ash Amin to discuss the future city. Combining plenaries, workshops and roundtable discussions, the symposium will debate the salience of reading the city from its physical and cultural infrastructures, the potential of urban democracy ‘by design’, and the implications of comprehensive urbanism for social thought and political practice.
I have just returned from South Africa’s “countryside” where I had gone on a preliminary/exploratory field research. I was basically interested in mapping the architectures (and I mean buildings) that populate the country’s northernmost province, Limpopo. I ended up more fascinated by two issues. One was the extent to which goods made in urban South Africa and others imported from “industrialized” countries outside Africa, are present in the countryside as pollutants. Baby diapers that are not (readily) bio-degradable, lead-based paints and asbestos roofing and piping materials that are still being sold to rural consumers despite their health-related bans in urban areas and in the global north. From a theoretical perspective, it raises interesting questions about the “rural” as the dumping ground of the “urban”; at an applied/public intellectual level, it posits key questions on the possibilities of unemployed youths creating money out of dirt.
The second aspect I was chasing was the tapestry of rural “African stores” and who owns them. I was looking at this as an example of “hidden champions”. I did find a lot of these–a chap who has established a computer and electronics company in his village without ever having trained in computers at all and is now the point man in the wireless mobile technology revolution unfolding there, giving a whole new meaning to the “remote”; villagers that have established grocery stores within the village and capitalize on kinship networks and “the community” as market; and Indian traders that buy up or lease all the grocery stores locally to kill competition, and then charge whatever prices they can, while bringing crappy second-hand goods sold in the wholesales of downtown Johannesuburg, themselves imported from China and the Middle East.
And finally, an emerging “town” in the countryside, one whose origins are quite interesting: a polygamist who had about 30 wives, who had a lot of children with each. At each homestead, in the spirit of his people’s rules of “peaceful and happy polygamy” that what you do unto one wife you do unto all, the chap built one rondavel hut (the traditional round house under thatch that is the signature of a woman’s power) and a bedroom (for the few nights he “visits” each wife, and a quarters for his children with each wife. This basic infrastructure pretty much determined subsequent technological innovations (both originated locally or imported)–grid lines of electricity; municipal water supply; fixed telephone lines; and now subscription to wireless networks.
As our project evolves, I am hoping to get in-depth, more videographic, and get some photos and interviews.
During the 20th century material infrastructures got out of the black box and became visible, multiplying themselves endlessly following the motto “more and bigger” and becoming a representation of administration’s power merged with the urban landscape. However, it has become necessary to find other types of infrastructures that are able to manage the existing conditions, to reconstitute how “traditional” infrastructures operate (Graham and Marvin 2001), are less expensive, and can redefine a different organization of power, such as pervasive sensor networks and monitoring systems. Read More »
a vision statement
Aristotle begins his Politics with a definition of the city: ”It is clear that all partnerships aim at some good, and that the partnership that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political partnership.” A shift in meaning is easily detected when comparing this account with a typical contemporary definition, in this case an entry from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: A city is a “relatively permanent and highly organized centre of population, of greater size or importance than a town or village. The name city is given to certain urban communities by virtue of some legal or conventional distinction that can vary between regions or nations.” While Aristotle focuses on human partnership with the aim of bringing out the best in each member of the community, the modern definition stresses the physical layout of the city with the mutual human relationships playing only a secondary role.
a vision statement
At the Munich workshop, the question was asked: “What would give your work impact?” This was a helpful reminder that impact is one of the key goals of research in general and of this fellowship in particular. The need for impactful urban research has also been reinforced by current events. Even though the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not the most obvious urban issue, it remains linked to habits of mobility and consumption that in turn influence settlement patterns, civic organization, and urban form. Even if the spill is only examined from the perspective of energy and ecology, it is clear that once this crisis has passed, another is surely imminent. It seems that larger shifts in collective values and individual behaviors must be brought about in order to address such patterns. Not an easy thing to achieve! However, this fellowship provides a forum to raise such concerns, to search for ways to address them and, hopefully to develop proposals that could resonate both within the various disciplines represented and at a broader public level. In pursuit of this, a project-oriented approach to research could be developed that will seek to understand possibilities for collective engagement and develop ideas for new forms of citizenship. Read More »
Poiesis Means Making
The world we inhabit is shaped and reshaped by the process of active making. An international, interdisciplinary initiative based at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University in partnership with the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the Poiesis Fellowship seeks to understand this process as well as the products that come out of it.
Current Poiesis Fellows
Time out India
New School for Social Research
Xi’an University of Technology
University of Kent
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of California – Davis
Technical University of Munich