Aerial view of Chicago, collage by Jonathan Michael Johnson
“In Chicago, it is rather difficult to get from the north side to the south side easily.
The two sides of the city are heavily segregated along racial and economic lines.”

Bernd Upmeyer discussed the issue of “Small Urbanism” with the American philosopher Levi Bryant. This interview focused on Bryant’s ideas about “The Democracy of Objects”. Bryant is a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College, outside of Dallas, Texas. He has written widely on Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and materiality. The interview took place in August 2017.

Dim Objects and Attics

Bernd Upmeyer: When in January of this year we interviewed Lars Lerup for MONU #26, we learned about your ideas on “The Democracy of Objects”, which, we believe, could be very relevant and interesting for our discussion on “Small Urbanism”. However, before we start talking about “The Democracy of Objects”, we would like to ask you some questions about some of your personal experiences with cities and architecture.
In an interview you gave to a blog on art, politics, philosophy, and science called “New APPS” in 2011, you mentioned that you discovered both philosophy and writing as a teenager after having been kicked out of your home by your family, becoming homeless for a while. We believe that this must have provided you with a very particular perspective on the city and especially on the small elements within it. How would you describe this perspective?

Levi Bryant: This was a painful, though fortunately brief, time in my life that I don’t like to talk about much. Needless to say, I was not an easy youth. Homelessness, I think, gives you a very different perspective on the city and performs what we might call a sort of “urban epoché”. In phenomenology, the epoché is an operation where you suspend the “natural attitude” so that you might attend to how things are given to us in experience. Where the natural attitude might approach a thing like a rock in terms of its mineral composition, the phenomenological approach brackets or suspends that approach and instead attends to how rocks are presented to us in experience. For example, we only encounter them in profiles, from a perspective, and never all at once, yet nonetheless as unified objects and perhaps we encounter them as beings of nature, or as parts of a wall, or as a work of art. In each case, the rock will have a different meaning…

BU: In the same interview you also said that during this time you began reading authors such as Nietzsche, Whitehead, Spinoza, Descartes, but also Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and Kafka. I find your interest in Kafka very intriguing, as, I think, some of his work and in particular his novel “The Trial” is very closely related to “Small Urbanism”. I think particularly of the legendary part in “The Trial”, when K. receives a phone call summoning him to court on a Sunday, with no time set, but the address given to him, which turned out to be a hidden space somewhere in the attic that he almost could not find after having walked for quite a while through an empty building and a deserted city. What do you think this description of a rather small space such as an attic tells us about the importance of small elements for cities?
LB: In the States, at least, attics are places of forgotten memories. They are a sort of unconscious of the home, speaking to the history of the people that live there, how they lived in the past, secrets and all the rest. A court, of course, is a place of laws and norms. By placing the court in the attic of an empty building in a deserted city, Kafka seems to suggest that there’s a sort of shadow law, a hidden law, behind the explicit laws and norms of the city. In this regard, we could treat the attic as a concept, rather than a place, and claim that the attic is everywhere in the city; that all places, inside and out, are pervaded by the attic.
The attic would be those unspoken norms and laws that structure urban spaces and how we dwell in them, as well as the material memory of cities embodied in their architecture and infrastructure. A moment ago I spoke of city benches with bars in the middle. This is a norm that codes these benches as places for sitting, not sleeping. Similarly, we might look at how public transit is configured. In Chicago, it is rather difficult to get from the north side to the south side easily. The two sides of the city are heavily segregated along racial and economic lines. That configuration of public transit contributes to maintaining this segregation…

… the complete interview was published in MONU #27 on the topic of Small Urbanism on October 16, 2017.

Title: Every Object is a Crowd!
Project: Interview with Levi Bryant
Date: August 2017
Type: Commissioned interview
Topic: Small Urbanism
Organizer: MONU
Status: Published
Publications: MONU #27, P. 40-47
Interviewer: Bernd Upmeyer