04-03-14 // FROM EXHAUSTED TO EXCITED
Dexter, ready to kill; Photo credit: ©Showtime
From Xhausted to Xcited
On the Difficulties of Seemingly Infinite Possibilities and Freedom within Contemporary Cultural Production
By Bernd Upmeyer
Seemingly infinite possibilities, a multiplicity of choices, and the lack of all-encompassing ideologies in our contemporary society, and particularly in contemporary architecture and urban planning, must not necessarily be something negative, something to be afraid of, or something to fight against. To the contrary, this condition – characterized by multiple choices – describes very well what contemporary culture is all about and should be considered as something ultimately positive.
In order to discuss the current notion of endless choice and freedom within contemporary processes of architecture and urbanization, I feel it necessary to introduce the work of the cultural and urban theorist and anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1), in order to emphasize that the production of architecture and the processes of urbanization are all processes of cultural production. It can be easily forgotten that as early as the 1980s Hannerz introduced the concept of hybridization into his field of research in order to describe culture in times of globalization as a dynamic, flowing, creative and mutual process of transformation. He emphasized that in order to keep culture going, people as actors and networks of actors have to constantly invent culture, reflect on it, experiment with it, remember it, debate it, and pass it on.(2) In his book Cultural Complexity – Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning (3) Hannerz states, for example, that the ethnological concept of culture, as it had been developed by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, can no longer be applied within the context of cultural complexity, because it exists in contemporary cities everywhere due to the intense global exchange of cultural products and people. All these ideas correspond with his concept of cultural flows (4) as the core of our contemporary culture, including the processes of urbanization, that leads ultimately, whether we like it or not, to a coexistence of numerous ideologies. But to fight this kind of freedom would make as little sense as fighting globalization in general. There is no way back and I believe there should not be a way back. We have to embrace the richness that the situation offers, look forward and learn how to deal with choice at all levels of cultural production in a responsible way. Owing to this, every single person is, in our contemporary society, in charge of themselves. And when it comes to shaping cities, one can no longer, for example, find the evil nor the good within the typical triangle of power that includes the investor, the municipality and the planner, as every individual is more than ever before in charge.
In this sense, the keywords for successfully dealing with our freedom in a time that is characterized by cultural flows are, in my opinion, responsibility, inventiveness and courage. Not to forget sincerity. However, after reading recently in The Economist about a so-called Generation Xhausted (5), I am not so sure whether people can cope with the current challenges of our society possibilities that it offers. What has been referred to, obviously, is ‘Generation X’, those highly educated, active, balanced, happy and family-oriented people born between 1961 and 1981, with an enormous amount of options and prospects in life.(6) This is supposed to be the generation that makes our contemporary world go round, the people between ages 30 and 50. But according to the Economist, the most saddest lot of them all are supposed to be professionals in exactly that age bracket, because they appear to be the victims of two colliding trends. Life slowing down and speeding up at the same time: families arrive later, even as careers are accelerating. At the same time many of them are caring for elderly relatives as well as struggling offspring, who are often, when in their 20s, indebted, jobless and stuck in an involuntarily protracted adolescence. Evidently life does not appear to be easy for the obviously self-pitying Generation X. And when I hear statements such as that contemporary and especially young architects might like to ‘banish the word ‘free’, because of the bitter taste of countless hours invested in unpaid competitions and client proposals’, as was stated in BI’s call for submissions for this very title, I discern a similar self-pity in a generation that comes after Generation X and a profession that tries to victimize itself. Please let us not forget how much fun it can be to take part in competitions. And allow us to also remember that the most established of architecture offices lose competitions most of the time. We architects should furthermore not be so arrogant to think that we are the only disadvantaged profession living a hard life. There are numerous other professions that struggle as well. What I would like to see among architects is a Generation Xcited to replace the Generation Xhausted – a generation that takes responsibility.
However, remaining responsible and sincere within a pluralistic environment and a multiplicity of ideologies can surely be a tricky thing as the temptations to use them all at the same time, or even better, whenever necessary and whenever fittingly, are extremely high. As Wouter Vanstiphout explained to me and Beatriz Ramo once in an interview (7): ‘today, even the most hard-nosed developer, corporate architect or neoliberal politician uses the language of community and sustainability to the extent that there is nothing on the surface you can disagree with’. In that way people can make Faustian deals without having to lose their souls. Today, an ambitious person can surrender his moral integrity in order to achieve power and success without ending up burning in hell. Everything becomes flexible and ideologies transform into something fashionable – like the right pair of shoes that you wear to a particular event, with which you get the most out of each situation. In order to understand what kind of psychology lies behind that kind of contemporary societal phenomenon, we should look at the theories of the American social psychologist Leon Festinger (8), who developed, in as early as the 1950s, ideas which relate to identity and identity contradictions. His ideas concerning so-called cognitive dissonance are especially interesting here. In social psychology cognitive dissonance can be described as an emotional state that is perceived as unpleasant. This condition arises when a person has multiple cognitions – perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, desires and intentions – that are not compatible.(9) Festinger proved that the psychological unpleasantness of such dissonance motivates people to try to reduce the dissonance and create so-called cognitive consonance.(10) Festinger mentions two different ways to reduce cognitive dissonance. A person can either change their cognition about their behavior by changing their actions, or they can add new cognitive elements, and thus increase the number of matching elements. If one of the abovementioned corporate architects appreciates, for example, ‘bottom-up’ planning strategies as much as he actually likes ‘top-down’ ones – more than we would expect do so, I believe, and not just the corporate architects – he can, in order to reduce that kind of cognitive dissonance, make use of both moves by adding new cognitive elements, as well as changing his actions. The corporate architect may, for example, in order to sleep well at night, add the cognitive element ‘artistic’ to the term ‘bottom-up’ and the cognitive element ‘commercial’ to the term ‘top-down’. In order to change his actions, he may, for example, apply his beloved ‘bottom-up’ planning strategies only in his European projects and his as much beloved ‘top-down’ ones only in Asia.
When we at MONU initiated in 2011 an open call for submissions on the topic of ‘Post-Ideological Urbanism’ that eventually led to the issue #15, we found ourselves surrounded and confronted by innumerable pseudo-realities and contradictory urban ideologies such as Green Urbanism or Neo-Urban Socialism, to name but a few that were probably conceived with the best of intentions. But we sensed that they were nonetheless widely used merely as promotional strategies of companies and institutions to maintain a positive and politically correct public image. At the same time we were also inspired by the American television series Dexter that showed us that in our contemporary society a single person, in this case the bloodstain pattern analyst Dexter Morgan, can be a serial killer and a loving and caring father at the same time. We understood also that hypocrisy and fakery are perhaps not necessarily such bad things when it comes to urban ideologies, as even alibi ideologies can refer to existing possibilities and lead to landmark projects that have the power to gain the interest of politicians and other people to raise the level of awareness. We realized that the existence of Pseudo-Ideologies characterizes to a large extent the conditions of the cities of the 21st century, resulting from the demise of binary thinking, which can be interpreted positively as such thought gives the stage to multiple urban qualifications: cities are able to oscillate between different entities, which may be green and socialistic on the one hand, and dirty and capitalistic on the other. In an increasingly competitive, complex and globalized world being hypocritical has become a valid method to survive. And to be successful today, more than ever, every person and every city has to be versatile and flexible when it comes to the way of looking at the world. Our speculations were reflected and agreed upon by most of the contributors. One of the contributors, Michael Hirschbichler, described the condition within contemporary architectural and urban production as a silent struggle between and mutual neglect of innumerable ideologies, neo-ideologies and pseudo-ideologies, where no single ideology or group of ideologies is perceived to be relevant enough to become a point of reference or a single desirable truth. And Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen explained this prevailing pluralism, or coexistence, as ‘metamodern’, a condition in which the contemporary structure of feeling evokes a continuous oscillation between seemingly modern strategies and ostensibly postmodern tactics.
It is Up to Us
The theories of Hannerz and Festinger, in particular, are valuable sources to help us understand what our globalized contemporary society is made of and how culture is produced today. And as architecture, urban planning and urban design all are part of that cultural production, this also goes for those disciplines. Today, more than ever, it is all about cultural flows and multiple cognitions that can easily lead to a Generation Xhausted. The increase of freedom that comes with this contemporary condition should not be seen as a threat, but as a great chance, especially by the younger generation of architects and urbanists. And let us not forget that a high level of freedom indicates a high level of democracy as well, which should never be underestimated. It is important to say that this increased freedom in a world consisting of a multiplicity of choices and outcomes without a single consistent ideology demands from every single person a higher level of responsibility, sincerity and ethical integrity, but also courage and inventiveness to transform what we called at MONU ‘Post-Ideological Urbanism’ into something beautiful and positive and not into some kind of monster. More than ever, it is all up to us in the end.
1. Ulf Hannerz, (born 9 June 1942 in Malmö), is an emeritus professor of social anthropology at Stockholm University. His research includes urban societies, local media cultures, transnational cultural processes, and globalization.
2. Hannerz, Ulf. (1997). Flows, Boundaries and Hybrids: Keywords in Transnational Anthropology.
3. Hannerz, Ulf. (1992). Cultural Complexity. Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press.
4. Hannerz, Ulf 1992: The Nature of Culture Today. In: Ders.: Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press, Page. 22.
5. ‘Generation Xhausted’ Forget the ‘sandwich generation’. These days others deserve more pity. The Economist. Aug 18th 2012.
6. Dawson, Alene (2011-10-26). ‘Study says Generation X is balanced and happy’. CNN.
7. Acrobatic Narratives – Interview with Wouter Vanstiphout by Beatriz Ramo and Bernd Upmeyer. The interview was published in MONU #15 on the topic of “Post-Ideological Urbanism” in November 2011.
8. Leon Festinger (May 8, 1919 – February 11, 1989), was an American social psychologist, responsible for the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance, social comparison theory, and the discovery of the role of propinquity in the formation of social ties as well as other contributions to the study of social networks.
9. Elliot, Aronson; Wilson, T. D.; Akert, R. M. (2008). Sozialpsychologie. Pearson Studium. 6. Edition. Page 163-
10. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
Title: From Exhausted to Excited
Author: Bernd Upmeyer
Date: March 2014
Type: Commissioned article
Location: New York, US; London, UK