Insinuation of 'dreams' in a city of 'despair'
A city has never been an agglomeration of built forms that accommodate the daily functionalities of living of its denizens; it is more than that. Nor is it the embodiment of an abstract form of urbanist architectonics that segregates in grid-like perfection areas that purport to service different civic needs of its inhabitants. Apparently, this is how we accept a city in its forms, contents, and functions: a landmass brought under a purposeful control of mathematico-logical techniques in order to secure its boundaries against the uncertainties/unpredictabilities of organic, spontaneous growth considered detrimental to a project of progress. A disgruntled note rings out in Henri Lefebvre's Notes on the New Town: '… men have two different ways of creating and producing, and as yet these have not intersected: spontaneous vitality, and abstraction.' This observation makes its case when we witness that in the service of extant and renewed formation of civic spaces human resources are simply drawn on for spatio- structural configuration, while the very human essence – the life sustaining, revitalizing energy- remains simply the domain of dreamy romance. One is not born a city-dweller but becomes one- though an unimaginative riff on the timeworn feminist adage, serviceably rings true. Take Dhaka as a socio-political matrix nestling a populace who in spite of embracing a multiplicity of transmigratory narratives enter unconditionally the monolithic dynamics of an encoded system of civic body(politic). This civic legislative manifesto hinges itself on regulatory structures that map the city in web-like grip, in forms of low/upscale housing, designated recreation grounds, streets, purpose-built( mainly economy driven) thoroughfares, nodes,
junctions, marketplaces, office blocks, and the whole breathless gamut of civic necessities. These civic organs in their ceaseless repetition turn into signifiers based on distinctly assigned functions aimed at systematizing a reified way of life. The daily drift of urban life that plays itself out below this 'habituated' landscape is a space apart, where cultural nuances of distant/overlapping locales collide and coalesce, resolving in a new spatial (un)reality. There is a political (where one takes one's rights of ownership seriously) consensus among professionals and nons alike that this city wears the brand of inhabitability seared across its entire fabric. Technically an imminent 'civic' collapse is not too far off if understood in light of the doctrines of urbanity modelled on the concept of modernization/progress, but what escapes the 'light' of vision is that the logic of space characteristically defies forms of concerted organization, it can only become habitable and navigable through years of everyday actions that determine its character and its rhythm, actions that are open to fluidity and mutability and are constantly renewable at each arrival of new elements, new influx. Space evolves with its stories building around living experiences that accumulate over time, in layers atop each other, embracing all and discarding none. Here, one needs to resort to Lefebvre for he denominates these human places as organic reality, marked with spontaneity and transition.
More akin to a cultural performative construct, space, giving the lie to its affinity to a political paradigm, is an extension of an interiority of perception that defies all attempts at confinement induced by artificial ( read geopolitical) boundaries. The vectors of spatial continuity and temporal circularity form the miasma that holds the seeds of evolving lifestyles that periodically emerge as a cultural manifest of shifting modes of social production that (de/re)regulate a community built on heterogeneous patterns of sociation.
The idea of space that is prone to our collective historical memory springs from a consciousness of belonging to a recognizable reality situated in a continuum of 'historical' spatio-temporality that nostalgically sustain us as a categorical people. In the palimpsest of the past we seek the roots of our collective identity - a totalizing construct. However, across the sinuous weave of the space/time tapestry of everyday life thrives a myriad of collectives of people who 'in the play and strategy of social relations' (Foucault) daily create their own 'secret history'. In the quotidian realm of life practices the catalytic/kinesthetic (as opposed to cathartic) elements of memory, experience, kinship to nature intermingle to evoke a spatial landscape that create a peculiar rootedness of the 'subject' to the space he/she occupies. Thus, it is the 'secret' zones, the interstices in the 'absolute space' of the City where divergent contra-narratives daily inscribe their own meanings and values, contrary to the overarching principle the 'polis' represents.
The penetrability of unstable borders, that allows for transmigrations/transformations resulting in a fomenting landscape of changing demographics, is (imperceptively at times) a decisive instrument in the formation of all spaces we create or build mentally and materially to locate ourselves within. This experiential space constantly aligns itself around the perpetual saga of displacement and re-formation/redeployment of communities that more often than not challenges the formalizing efforts of the dominant civic 'discourse', devised to stamp 'space' with the 'monumental' and 'homogeneous'. It is an implosion of the prescribed 'whole' into polemical sub-realities that inaugurates the space of aesthetics/imagination, one that yields the will to go beyond, the space that is creatively co-opted to disrupt the otherwise formidable stasis of 'being' by infusing new stories of 'becoming', clearing up new paths of possibilities.
Our city wears a hemispheric hierarchy with the relatively eye-pleasing frontal zone tucking behind its back the daily froth of unprivileged (sub)subsistence living panning out in the slums, hidden from unwitting sight. Since none of the fundamental urban privileges can be taken for granted in this hinterland, the forgotten dwellers of these nether zones structure their space as theatres of strife for survival and an unending cycle of strategies/tactics propelled towards the same, spontaneously and limitlessly spurting an orbit of social actions. In order to enter the urban economic productive chain, these folks undergo redeployment of labour/skill in everchanging economic activities. Moreover, their collective cultural identity grows ever so robust with the adaptive capacity for interpenetration through innumerable contacts between communities. This populace is often found milling the public spaces or spaces of appearance that come into being (Hannah Arendt) with the motley assembly of people who engage in speech and action (without the intertwinement of which public space ceases to exist). Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that within the folds of these invisible cities (milieus that shape urban experiences in the form of actions) within the City (a pivotal programmatic political organ of the State), lurks the potential energy for a prolific revitalization of public/collective and by extension individual lives, as words and deeds are regularly asserted and contested within the dialectics of symbiosis.
The relevance and vitality of public spaces are often assumed through hoodwinking the purpose and intent of the original urban project (that of regulation), making their potential use more meaningful than the actual. The capricious domain of the kitchen market, empty holdings between buildings, untended parks, ramshackle tea-stalls, landscaped fronts of shopping malls- cordon sanitaire turned roadside hangouts turn into vivacious hubs of spatial practices. These practices presuppose the active/performative agency of the human body which through its sensory organs, verbal/ non-verbal gestures, manipulations, sartorial preference represents the cultural as well as the symbolic markers of spatial relations. This 'body' is one of resistance that foils the tactics of abstract space to dominate/intimidate by means of the 'visual' (text, legibility, signs). The body of taste, smell, hearing and tactility in its morphology resonates with the concepts of surface, depth and fluidity of space. The streets of Dhaka is saturated with differences of dialects, between lungis and jeans, between a paan-spitting pedestrian and a spruce Anglo-phone, all of which in their daily parade form a panorama of apparent repetitions that potentiates leakages of innovation.
The secular space of the City is rendered far less pervasive when traces of metonymic 'wish-images' form their own spatial significations by means of a semantic rarefaction around certain 'built forms'. The Shahid Minar and Aparajeo Bangla are memorials of a nationalist utopia based on events of the past, whose ideals are projected into the future, that is the present and the future at the same time, ideals of recouping a cultural and territorial identity that remains forever threatened. The 'messianic' vision of freedom and justice that informs the sentiments surrounding these edifices, however, lends them an extra-territoriality by causing a disruption in both time and space; elevating them to the sublime aesthetics of the sacred. The Minar assumes both symbolic and pedestrian values in the temporal cycle of the spatial functions of a communal life. Its grounds becomes site of sacred homage performed with ritualistic removal of shoes on the Language Day, while round the year its shady terraces are appropriated for political protests or leisurely rest. Similarly, Aparajeo Bangla transcends its aesthetic merit as a sculpture, articulated in a monumentality of 'sacred' commemoration. None are dialectically correlated to the present geo-politics, but rises above our present as an ethical obligation exceeding and yet haunting it (quoted from Art, Sacred Space and Utopia by Richard A. Cohen).
The asymmetry in spatial formations becomes far starkly evident seen along the matrices of urban housing projects. The housing projects in their varied scales of ambition receive utmost priority within the schema of urban planning. The most coveted right in this era of global capitalism is the right of private property, and the speculative profit rate of real estate varies according to an arbitrary logic of economics that allocate more value to certain areas above others, thus hierarchizing spatial relationships. The divisible public/private pragmatics also demands further scrutiny. Within the framework of a public space a citizen withdraws into a mode of 'being' amenable to playing the roles of a citizen. The spatial sensibility of the private self with its unique range of sensorium is devalued and delimited so as to enable his/her initiation into the urban consensus that privileges selective practices ritually performed in the service of the State.
The threshold between the private and the public is apparently uncompromising, it is deskilling and debilitating in that a public self must adapt to a state of anonymity, the differentiated social values as well as social relations are leveled out under the narratives grounded in equal rights, democracy, secularism. Nevertheless, sociability and citizenship remain staunchly unbridgeable; while the latter draws on the concept of equity in terms of entitlement to democratic rights, the impetus for the former is derived from the non-alignable socio-cultural asymmetry. Public space imposes certain behavioural imperatives upon the occupants that more often than not remain at odds with their private way of life, resulting in vulnerabilities and in some cases social pathologies. Within the pale of this formatively/politically egalitarian space are entrenched 'structures of feeling that are physically difficult for humans to navigate and hostile to face to face encounters (Kathryn Milun,
Pathologies of Modern Space: Empty space, Urban anxiety and the Recovery of Public Self). The subjective consciousness of socio-cultural and economic divide that objectively confines subjects in distinct urban zones remains active as a powerful underlying force that agitates new forms of suspicion and paranoia tainting all transversal encounters taking place in this shared space. Urban/rural, rich/poor, central/peripheral, such essentialist categories loom large and are openly manifested, in the war-zones of intra-group conflicts. The culturally embodied spatial experience in an instrumentally bureaucratized order proves especially challenging to the rural migrants whose grounding in the metropolitan life remains perpetually tenuous due to lack of access to civic resources, these actors remain little more than social pariahs living in their fragmented micro-spaces run autonomously more or less on the basis of 'jungle rule' of what can grabbed or pirated for 'sub-citizenly' survival.
As a result, to keep the undesirable 'unruly' and 'disruptive' in check our metropolis is witnessing a steady increase in a 'logico-ethical' system of vigilance that draws upon surveillance techniques of the likes of barricades, close circuit cameras, etc., installed at nodal intervals of public life. Employed against supposed threat of subversive 'agents', these hardware/software devices surreptitiously monitor and regulate passages of so-called free movement of citizens, thus, rendering all rightful mobility suspect and constrained. The concrete physical space conspires with the abstract juridical in turning the metropolis transparent and exposed, thus susceptible to control, where visibility and legibility sterilizes the diverse customs by which people negotiate life and transmit knowledge. A system of vigilance that also inflicts on the life of the city its own temporal cycle of arrival and departure defined through a timetable of 'rational' intervention. Spatial reality as lived experience remains inextricable from 'time', which in its more natural social form serves as a locus and medium of use in differential social practices, in contrast to the capitalist/paternalist formulation of binary time of work (eliciting maximum economic turnover) and leisure (supervised). In spite of the panoptic 'checkpoints' in time and space, in 'liberated' spaces that shed their primary 'authorized' roles, celebration of life finds expression in impromptu soirees in public squares, streets turn into nightly grounds for gastronomic hunt (take Nazirabazaar in the old part of the city for example), make-shift schools as a philanthropic initiative irrupt in the middle of an alley; alongside, the constant flow of human spirit continues to resist and transgress in its tryst with the carnal and decadent.
In the face of the fast moving info-tech 'industrial complex', the greater reality of an infinitely ongoing spatio-temporal mutation spurred by an unprecedented technological boom according to Paul Virilio (The Overexposed City) is, “constantly reorganizing both the world of everyday experience and the aesthetic representation of contemporary life.” In The Art-Architecture Complex Hal Foster is not farther afar when he speaks of a 'gradual reconfiguration' of a 'cultural space' which remains perennially in a state of flux in response to the changing demands of 'consumer capitalism'. He espouses a ceaseless remodelling of space in which 'structure, surface and symbol' are being 'combined in new ways'. Space primarily denotes an intimate zone that the inhabitants define/embrace in equally intimate terms in light of their perception of their locales as a repository of inexhaustible physical, mental, and spiritual sustenance. Conversely though, in a world that thrives on an increasing predominance of iconicity, where people and their entire scheme of living has been subordinated to a need for an allegiance to economic 'value addition' : how can we draw the line between authentic need and the blind leap of faith into the oblivious acquisition of bar-coded/ commercially encoded products; where as a lagniappe biometrics technology transforms people into digits?
It is the sanctified spectacle- a hegemonic obtrusion, that engulfs every citizen of this urban habitat. In this rarified space we sacrifice our intrinsic and authentic desires and dreams at the alter of the implacable deity of homogenized conformism. We relentlessly seek membership to a community cult that offers a presumptive safety against the threat of the fringe, the other. We lay down ethical parameters in the service of unnatural borders of a superficially fragmentary space that confers coercive identities. Yet space remains autonomous in the fragments of experientiality, in the subterfuge of liminality where communities form and dissolve in the daily tide of self mobilized actions performed in the interest of intermittent and renewed self determination.
Though positioned at a remove on the 'interface' (surface) of consumerist globalization, Dhaka perilously teeters under the monstrosity of jostling hoardings, the alterpieces of superfluous signs and misguided/ing symbols that enthrall us with their hypnotic 'gaze' from peremptory heights, above and beyond and all around. They no longer work subliminally, but, in anemic compliance with our heightened desensitized (un)awareness, explicating a willful amnesia. Imageability (or readability) is what arguably determines our identification with space.
It is the appearance without depth, the flatlands of representations that telescope/compress within its grasp all originary notions of distance in time and space in a network of '… images and messages [that] afford neither locale nor stability, since they are the vectors of a momentary, instantaneous expression, with all manipulated meanings and misinformation that presupposes (Virilio).'
‘… topos can be thought of as a category theoretic “generalization” (abstraction) of the structure of universe of sets and functions that removes certain logical and geometric restrictions (constraints) of this structure while maintaining its virtues.'
Topos theory describes space as a set of relations or structures that are classified in a relative way, in relation to each other: The structure of every object is specified by all morphisms between this object and other objects.
Therefore, topos formulation lends space flexibility, imputing it more adaptive than rigid, which obtains its structure from the ever changing relational indices of its 'context' and 'local places of view', allowing for morphism, or affective change of topos whose composition , associativity and functions are not strandardized but rather left to the pull of fluidity. (Derived from, In An Introduction to Topos Theory, Ryszard Pawel Kostechi (http://www.fuw.edu.pl/~kostecki/ittt.pdf.)
The apparently finite set of definable spaces that form the topology of a city is in reality rife with the possibilities of new spatial formations, thus, rendering the city into a shifting, osmotic matrix. As much uncanny as they are life-affirming, these potential shifts mobilize a transition/transmutation of the static to the (re)generative. Again, a city in all its appearances offers itself as a tripartite eco(nomy)logy of space, time and human subjects, all caught in an eddy of social ties, lifestyles, technologies, relationship to nature and above all aesthetic values. It is this collective power of the interdependent triad that rises above the logistic curve of 'capital' tooled to control a 'supervised' population, to set it free to formulate its own freedom. The dream of salvaging Dhaka, an apparently threatened city, is nurtured in the 'cities' where contradictions meet and give way to new beginnings; the 'cities' survive when spatial abstraction is infused with 'spontaneous transition!'