Is a non-motorist the same as an ex-pedestrian?

8/7/20236 min read

One Hundred

The following is dedicated to demonstrating the implementation of intensive thinking in design processes. To accomplish this I will present an elaborate example that draws on previous fieldwork and which has also been used in some courses of the Masters programme at Delft University of Technology.[i] In this section I will also deal with mapping the urban fabric and its social and economic structures, with a particular interest in exploring the underlying and overarching virtual and actualised flows.[ii]

The quintessential point of departure for this exploration concerns certain modes of interaction that form a special type of constellation. These interactions contribute to the conversion of properties into capacities. I am not even certain if their interaction could be called an assemblage, given that the non-entangled mode of their existence suggests that they could also be regarded as the opposite of an assemblage. Yet the assemblage has no preconditions, its totality is always one hundred per cent. This means that there is no preset number of elements: all elements in the assemblage define the assemblage by being part of it. This may seem to be a circular form of logic, but as all elements are strictly connected to others, the entire universe can be seen as an assemblage. The purpose of the assemblage is to emphasise the interrelations of its elements in order to destabilise their property-led ‘characteristics’.

There is no sense of duration attached to the concept of assemblage, meaning that the interplay of any set of actors and conditions has no predetermined temporal requirement or number of actors, nor any fixed parameter at all, which is to acknowledge the pertinence (or necessity) of contingency. Even the notion of interaction is very fluid: if two or more elements are at play, then non-communicative, non-active, inert qualities displayed by any of these elements do not influence that interaction. Or do they? Let us take the example of standing on a beam measuring fifteen centimetres wide and four metres long. This would not be a hard task if the beam were lying on the floor, but it would become very difficult if the beam were situated thirty metres high between two buildings. Although the void may not even be considered as an entity, its effects are nevertheless very substantial. Another example to consider is the ‘interaction’ between a motorist with car problems standing at the side of a motorway, and the traffic on the motorway. Cars continuously pass at high velocity, and, for a split second, the eyes of a person in the passenger seat of a passing vehicle meet those of our stranded traveller. Although both individuals could be classified in the same category (human, motorists, same modes of transport, same destination etc.), they are still miles apart.

At this point the stranded motorist is caught in an in-between stage of being neither a motorist (because of the defective machine) nor a pedestrian (because of the unsuitable environment). The actor is unable to escape or change the environment; (s)he is suspended between ‘agreeable‘ ecologies.[iii] This state of non-motorist-ism is the specific mode of the type of assemblage I am referring to. Perhaps we could call this a ‘suspended assemblage’ that is appositionally related to a ‘transitional assemblage’, which would indicate the moment of transitional becomings: for instance, a person getting into the car and thus making a transition from pedestrian to motorist. As long as the car is not moving, the person is technically not driving (though legally considered a driver), but rather in a ‘suspended assemblage’ of motoring. The ecology has changed from the pedestrian realm to that of motorist, yet as long as the car is not being driven, the person behind the wheel can be classified as a ‘non-motorist’ rather than an ‘ex-pedestrian’ since becoming part of the ecology of motorist is clearly the intention. This also indicates that even when elements are not operating within the same realm; in other words, some are operating in the actual and others in the virtual, or even when they are not part of the same ecology they may still affect one another and interact.

Therefore this transitional state of ‘non-motorist’ needs to be acknowledged as being part of a certain assemblage yet able to operate in another. Since every assemblage is always connected to others through the participation of their elements in a multitude of assemblages, the effect of the affect in one assemblage might well be the opposite in another. For example, our non-motorist considered from a different perspective could also be called a non-pedestrian. In the first formulation of the stranded motorist, the environment requires motoring and the subject fails to fulfil that capacity; in the second formulation, the subject possesses the capacity to walk but the environment does not permit it. I would be tempted to call for an overarching assemblage for these assemblages, but as there is no hierarchy in assemblages, such a ‘meta-assemblage’ would be rendered useless. It is precisely the difference between figure and ground that is causing an element to be ‘non-pedestrian’ or ‘non-motorist’. Depending on the ground (the pedestrian or motoring ecology), the figure stands out as either an ex-pedestrian or a non-motorist. For now I will call this difference ‘the niche’, to indicate that it has a specific space that is neither predefined, nor is there a preconception about its mode of existence.[iv] Yet it is always there.

The model of the niche serves as a conceptual modus operandi, a concrete state and a relational vector. It is, so to speak, the ‘chemical clock’ of affect theory. In a chemical clock, two or more liquid components react on each other forming new composites (each with a distinguishable colour), none of which is stable. Because of this effect, the composites are formed over and over again, constantly passing the threshold that marks their instability, causing the liquid to change colour indefinitely (provided that there is a source of energy). This model serves as the mode of transformation between content and expression under transient conditions and rests on the inability to separate either element. The importance of isolating the effect is to demonstrate the independence of the system’s effectiveness without the necessity of understanding the system itself. It is obvious that one cannot be both a pedestrian and a motorist simultaneously, and that neither state is predetermined; they are interchangeable in terms of their affective responsiveness. It is not coincidental that the analogies I have used to exemplify some of these concepts have a relation to, or stem from, actual traffic situations.

Situated flows are perfect sources for investigating mechanics of this kind. Brian Massumi exemplifies this strikingly when pursuing Bruno Latour´s notion of the ‘quasi object’, which features the football as a way of rethinking the relation between the object and the subject. Massumi explains:

The formal rules of the game capture and contain the variation. They frame the game, retrospectively describing its form as a set of constant relations between standardized terms. A codification is a framing derivative that arrogates to itself the role of foundation. It might be argued that all foundations are of this nature – ex post facto regulatory framings rather than effective foundings.[v]

A very interesting mode of investigation which I have used with students is to create an alternative cartography based on a taxonomy of these niches, those places where the (urban) fabric allows for changing types of ‘roles’: from motorist into pedestrian and vice versa, motorist into theatre-audience member, and so on. Note that these roles are not pre-established, they are merely indicators that serve as a contingent label, not as a necessary determinant. Becoming is an event, not a process.

Photo-credit: Carol M. Highsmith
, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, no known copyright restrictions.

Title: Berwyn car spindle, Berwyn, Illinois, USA, 2007.

[i] These programmes ran from 2004 to 2013 as part of the Delft School of Design (DSD) graduate programme in Architectural Theory at Delft University of Technology.

[ii] For an introduction to the concept of mapping in architecture see Stan Allen, Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation (London: Routledge, 2009).

[iii] J.G. Ballard’s book Concrete Island (London: Panther Books, 1974) is largely based on the concept of (non)-agreeable ecologies. An agreeable ecology is the part of an environment that permanently suits the biology of the species at hand; e.g., a human can live on earth but not underwater or on the side of the motorway. This concept resonates with Jakob von Uexküll’s construct of ‘Umwelt’. See Dorion Sagan, ‘Introduction: Umwelt after Uexküll’, in Jakob von Uexküll, Marina von Uexküll, Joseph D. O’Neil, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 3.

[iv] The definition of niche as it is used here is a (metaphorical) place or position suitable or appropriate for a body. This place has to be established a posteriori; there is no predetermined classification for its position or function.

[v] Massumi, ‘The Political Economy of Belonging and the Logic of Relation’, in Parables, p. 71.