25 March 2013

What form should our movement take?

My friend and comrade Ed Sutton poses an interesting perspective from which to think about a global progressive movement in his article for Occupy.com. The movement isn’t coming, it’s right in front of us, he argues. If only we’d open our eyes we could see it. Although I differ in my analysis of the reasons behind the Occupy movement’s ostensible fall from prominence in the media, I think that the perspective he suggests is well worth further exploration and debate. As I take it, the central question animating Ed’s reflections on the squatting movement in Europe is, succinctly put, what form should our movement take? Through what social practices can we realize the potential for overcoming the social tensions—between plenty and want, between love for one’s neighbors and hate for strangers—exploding into popular consciousness in this moment of upheaval?

11 March 2013

Bob Dylan's factory

Bob Dylan Lays Off 2,000 Workers From Songwriting Factory

Of course, it's hilarious to think of Bob Dylan as a factory owner and manager of a songwriting brand. But I think that here humor plays its highest role of teasing out the doubts that quietly rot beneath cherished articles of faith, and by exposing and examining these doubts we can enjoy a nice insight into popular music as a commodity. The music industry is now facing a crisis that is here ironically related to deindustrialization, but the humor points to very real anxieties about contradictions within the economycontradictions that have relevance far beyond the music industry. But to begin, I will just address the first layer of irony, of Bob Dylan as a sober manager and his music as the product of an assembly line.

Music has the potential to be an exemplary commodity for the very reason that the form in which it appears in society, that is in the market, obscures the actual terms of its production. The word commodity carries with it a sense of sterility or at least banality, and through common usage connotes items like gold and oil that are extracted from the earth or crops like corn that grow from it. Commodities are impersonal and mass produced, quite the opposite of the deeply meaningful songs produced by an artist like Bob Dylan. Yet there is no Bob Dylan without the record company that promotes, assembles, distributes, and markets his songs.

02 March 2013

Towers of speculation

The construction of the world’s first one-kilometer building took a step forward last week with the announcement of a project manager. If completed, the Burj al Mamlakah (Kingdom Tower) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, would stand 170 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world by a wide margin. If you stood New York’s Chrysler Building on top of Chicago’s Sears Tower (aka Wesley Willis Tower), you would still have to add the tallest building in Boston, the Hancock Tower, to reach the planned height of the Burj al Mamlakah. If you put Shanghai’s second-tallest building, Jinmao Tower 金茂大厦, on top of the city’s tallest building, the World Financial Center 球金融中心, it would still fall about 90 meters short of the Mamlakah.

The explosion in supertall buildings seems to have barely taken a breather after the global financial crisis. While there were casualties in Dubai, Moscow, and Chicago, others have quickly stepped into the void. What will be the world’s second-tallest building (640 meters), Digital Media City Landmark Building 디지털 미디어 시티 랜드마크 빌딩, is being built in Seoul with an expected completion date in 2015. But the Ping’an International Finance Center 平安国金融中心, under construction in Shenzhen, will almost immediately eclipse it at 660 meters. The following year Seoul will reclaim the number two position with the Dream Tower 드림 타워 (665 meters). Meanwhile, proposed buildings in Baku and Kuwait would both be taller than even the Burj al Mamlakah. World One Mumbai (442 meters) will be almost 200 meters taller than India’s current tallest building; the Shard in London (310 meters) last year became the tallest building in the European Union; and Moscow’s Mercury City Tower/Меркурий Сити Тауэр (339 meters) will this year become the tallest completed building in Russia.

As if we needed any more evidence, the meteoric revival of the skyscraper boom signals that the agents of neoliberalism have changed nothing after their first brush with death. Skyscrapers are one of the most concrete expressions of the abstract movements animating a speculative society. They map the motion of capital spiraling upward into thin air, seemingly unmoored from all physical constraints. They represent the extreme inequalities of a society animated by speculation, as the ultra-rich escape from the debased masses milling about in the sprawl or the slums, into the rarefied precincts of their towers: the corporate office suites, the requisite luxury hotels, the extravagant restaurants and bars “in the sky”. The soaring verticality of the buildings mirrors the assent of the winners in this society over the losers, or the skyrocketing fortunes of the speculators.