"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Penitentiary Urbanism
by Matias Echanove

In many ways, American ghettos resemble prisons. On an aesthetic level first, the architecture often looks defensive and authoritarian: straight angles, windowless walls, raw bricks, high buildings, long stretches of cubical houses, gridded streets, fenced windows, closed lots, barbed wire, guard dogs, and surveillance cameras. Public buildings such as prisons, police stations, hospitals, governmental agencies, schools, and residential housing all have similar architecture. In addition, ghettos are usually isolated geographically or at least out of sight. They are blind spots on the psychogeographic map of the socially integrated population. Like a mental system, the city forgets what it does not want to see.

New York City ghettos are disconnected from the rest of society, but are in no way autonomous. Police presence has increased in recent years and public buildings attest the presence of the state. The omnipresence of the grid reminds residents that the space they inhabit is planned and controlled. Abandoned buildings usually fall into ruin, and junk often piles up on the streets. The destruction of the Ark that an enlightened Newark resident built on a vacant lot exemplifies the spatial politics of the authorities. What artist Kea Tawana constructed to symbolize unity and hope was destroyed by order of the courts, along with his self-constructed house [Vergara: 1999, 159]. Prohibiting personal intervention clearly means that that the land does not belong to those who live on it. It posits the state as an exterior, supreme, and dominant entity.

Ghetto residents are by definition marginal. Had they been given the choice, they might have agreed to the “social contract” and integrated the cultural, ideological, social, and economic consensus. But, the majority is disconnected from the social, economic, and cultural mainstream. From the start they are deprived of many incentives and benefits given to all other citizens. The social tie is non-existent. The mechanism of reciprocity, whereby citizens playing by the rules of the game are materially rewarded for their subjection, appears to be broken in the ghetto. This fracture sociale delegitimizes the state and its institutions, which are therefore not integrated mentally nor adopted as guiding principles of social behavior [Deleuze & Guattari: 1987, 464]. Mainstream institutions, rules, and norms, which constitute the platform upon which social and economic exchanges take place and upon which the social identity of the middle class gets constructed, are at best irrelevant to most of the ghetto population and at worst perceived as a repressive apparatus. Hence, the ghetto is like a disjunctive social machine. What Foucault [1975, 244] calls “positive” discipline only partially takes hold because it is not relayed at the individual and social levels by a set of values and norms. Instead, the more archaic form of “blockade” or “negative” discipline is imposed on residents and structures physical space. Defensive architecture, high police presence, and restrictive regulations (for instance making difficult to open a bar) are all strategies aimed at “neutralizing danger, fixing useless or agitated populations, preventing excessive gathering” [Foucault: 1975, 245]. Where “positive” discipline does not penetrate the social fabric and individual minds, “negative” discipline intensifies. When “increasing the possible utility of individuals” [Foucault: 1975, 245] is impossible, efforts concentrate on direct physical control, on “maintaining the street” [Virilio, quoted in Deleuze & Guattari: 1987, 479].

Evasion Tactics

We could describe the space not controlled by “positive” or mental discipline as non-colonized, non-stratified, open, and smooth. Because the dominant institutions do not occupy that space, the social platform has to be reinvented. This does not mean that these spaces develop independently from the constrained urban and social environment in which they emerge. On the contrary, it is only by climbing the wall or by finding the fault that prisoners escape the jail. The physical and social grid conditions the actualized form of the smooth, open space emerging within it. Moreover, the institutional, social, economic, and cultural pressure exercised on the ghetto increases the need for spaces of decompression. If it were not for the wall on which it stands the graffiti would not exist. However, once the code has been broken, once secret tunnels have been dug, once the graffiti has been adopted as a way of expression, it is almost unstoppable: use Japanese technology to make graffiti-proof subway trains and the windows will be scratched.

“When a State does not succeed in striating its interior or neighboring space, the flux that traverse it will necessarily take the appearance of a war machine directed against it [the State]” [Deleuze & Guattari: 1987, 480]. Indeed, much of the culture that was born in the ghetto has stemmed from an attitude of defiance towards established rules and norms. It seems that the power of ghetto culture and its potential of resistance are commensurable with the pressure imposed by the institutions of the State. Project housing produces high crime and good hip-hop. Hip-hop is to a large extent a culture of transgression. It has no moral and no limits. From gansta-rap and the worshiping of the Uzi to marijuana-blunts and the canonization of crack dealers passing by sexually explicit lyrics and the cult of porn, hip-hop culture transgresses the values and beliefs of the establishment. Breaking the rules and resisting control and assimilation are more than evasion tactics, they are also cultural strategies allowing the permanent creation of an “other” identity, which is more than the negative reflection of the dominant culture. It is a war machine creating a borderless local culture; “deploying itself on a milieu without horizon” [Deleuze & Guattari: 1987, 469]; “a locality of the absolute or of the infinite” [Deleuze & Guattari: 1987, 602]. The taking-over and local remixing of hip-hop culture throughout the world seem to attest of its infinite capacity to mutate and evolve.

The language of the ghetto [slang, code words, expressions, signs, body language, etc.] is also a local and situational, fluid and dynamic, social and cultural self-organizing system. It is a social-cultural capital shared and created by the community over which no one has control. The ability to speak it tells where you come from; it makes you a part of a community. It serves as a collective space where values, meanings, and roles can emerge beyond the etiquette that has been put on the back of ghetto residents. In a hostile urban, social, and institutional environment, the creation of a language that is one’s own and impenetrable by the mainstream creates a virtual space of freedom: a temporary autonomous zone where another reality can emerge. Indeed, essential to its autonomy is its inaccessibility by outsiders. It is kept as a secret or inherited knowledge. Various mechanisms prevent the outsider from grasping it. First, far from being only a collection of words that one could list and learn, it is also a body language, a know-how to speak, move, and behave. Secondly, and this is crucial, it is in constant movement. It permanently dies or mutates. Maybe worst than not knowing the language of the street at all, is to know an outdated version of it: go to the school yard with expressions two years old and you will be an outsider.

Because of their fast minds, creative spirits, and dense social networks, kids are often the inventors of new words and expressions. In this survival of the sleekest, the expressions of the most creative and admired ones get imitated and spread out. Sources of inspiration range from TV and hip-hop songs to foreign languages. Innovations are always incremental, but the rate of change is extremely rapid, with new expressions disseminating at the speed of a virus, soon contaminating the entire community and spreading beyond it—and down to the mainstream via MTV.

New expressions express a collective experience. They are always totally relevant, simultaneously dominant, and ephemeral. The impermanence of ghetto expressions is their strength. That is why they are always challenged and never allowed to become standards. The only rule is transgression; war and creation. A new rule emerges out of the transgression of another. Then in a second it disappears, gets ruled out by a new transgression more in tune with the moment. And the second it gets ruled out, it does not exist anymore. It is dead; it does not have any relevance or legitimacy. Therefore, hierarchies or strata do emerge in the smooth space of street language, but only momentarily. Further research will help clarify how informal, smooth, rhizomatic cultures emerge even in the most stratified and controlled environment. In the context of the ghetto, smooth cultural spaces seem to be places where collective identity and social roles get played out and are actualized.

Deleuze and Guattari warn us “never to believe that a smooth space suffices to save us” [1987, 625]. Nonetheless, they are the spaces of the possible, where new, local axiomatic can develop. It seems that it would only be fair for policy makers and urban planners to allow the ghetto to develop in its own terms. To actually let new institutions emerge from the local might be the only way to see marginal communities develop social patterns that are compatible with the State and able to interact with it.


Bey, Hakim, TAZ: Temporary Autonomous Zone, Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari Felix, Mille Plateaux: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie. Paris: Edition de Minuit, 1987.
Donaldson, Greg. The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993.
Foucault Michel, Surveiller et Punir, Paris: Gallimard, 1975.
Vergara Camilo Jose, The New American Ghetto, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
posted by R J Noriega at 2:57 PM | Permalink |


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