Friday, May 18, 2012

Omnitopia as Urban Epistemology

Preparing for my Weimar presentation, I found myself bumping up against the idea of "urban epistemology," wondering is contemporary knowledge doesn't merely arise in the city but also through the city. Naturally it didn't take me long to then wonder what an omnitopian urban epistemology might be.

Generally I approach omnitopia from a critical perspective (not as a "critical scholar," of course - though that's a slightly different issue). At the same time I find pleasure and relevance to the omnitopian performance.

I therefore wonder: Can the same principles that produce a structural and perceptual enclave whose apparently distinct locales convey inhabitants to a singular place convey us also to some truth about the world? To explore this idea, I offer these notes:

1. Omnitopia is not a fact; it is a framework. Its value lies less in what it is than what it reveals.

2. We might imagine omnitopia as a sort of urban epistemology: a way of knowing that yields potentially useful insights.

3. Omnitopia-as-urban-epistemology does not promise a grand narrative; there is no one-size-fits-all producer of universal meaning.

4. Omnitopia-as-urban-epistemology instead offers a way of seeing - a layer of augmented reality that highlights some phenomena (while admittedly obscuring others).

5. From this perspective [and employing the framework that appears in my book City Ubiquitous] an omnitopian urban epistemology would reflect five principles:

Dislocation: Knowledge should be unfixed from its authors and origins; it should be easily shared. To borrow from Stewart Brand: "Information wants to be free." This does not suppose that we abandon a literal marketplace of ideas any more than we should abandon our obligations to act ethically. Yet when knowledge is easily shared, (freed, as it were, from all but the most necessary constraints) meaningful insight can grow. In contrast, knowledge without broad access (illustrated but not limited by the principle of peer review) may possess only a passing similarity to anything that resembles truth.

Conflation: Knowledge should value synthesis over analysis. To be sure, one may dwell deeply in the particulars of the world, just as one grows attached to a particular cafe or pub or diner. Yet when the production of knowledge works simply to strip away extraneous elements from a supposedly elemental truth, the outcome almost invariably produces little more than the sum of one's limitations. Expanding our intellectual maps, connecting seemingly disparate nodes, need not turn us into dilettantes. [And even if we face such scorn, we might prefer that pejorative to the risk of becoming pedants.]

Fragmentation: Knowledge frequently arises when apparently complete narratives are breached, broken, and cut against the grain. As an urban phenomenon and a necessary counterpoint to conflation, fragmentation often reveals itself as the destruction of communities who have been split by broad boulevards or managed as imperial categories. At the same time, individuals and groups possess an emancipatory tool when they seize that same power, acting to fragment otherwise overwhelming urban narratives. Truth tends to form in the cracks of previously impenetrable facades.

Mobility: Knowledge accrues less in stasis than in motion. Its truth is best measured when subject to the jostles and jolts of transmission. As such, knowledge can hardly be delineated from communication. Indeed, it can't exist without discourse. From another perspective, consider the knowledge of the metro, and compare its insights to the knowledge of the easy chair. From that latter position, one may easily reflect and refine on what is known. Yet the process of moving from place to place enables a cascade of momentary, partial (and, yes, sometimes distracting) utterances. Signs, sounds, objects: each provoke new connections. Knowledge that results from such mobility brings us closer to understanding.

Mutability: Knowledge must be twisted from its comforting alignments to be useful. Again we learn from the city. The planner's perspective may allow for coming and going, to-ing and fro-ing, but the purpose of most design is to fix meaning upon place. Few visionaries of the urban milieu genuinely build change into their plans. Growth, repair, renewal, yes. But change that may transform one place into another? Such is rare. At the same time, the power to produce an illusion of mutability is a frequent component of most efforts at command and control. This is the projection of "nimble force," of "rapid deployment," of "shock and awe." Such mutability must be practiced by anyone who would seek to know the world and to challenge its would-be authors. This is the stolen moment of the impromptu concert, the flash mob, the unscripted conversation. In these moments, knowledge takes root and may grow wild.

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