The Vertigo of Power: A Review of Stephen Graham’s “Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers”

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In his 1991 tome on postmodernism, Frederic Jameson famously suggested that under “late capitalism” – that is, the kind of globalized, flexible capitalism that tore past the limit points imposed by earlier stages of development – we’ve lost the ability to properly deploy ‘cognitive’ maps of our environment, thus producing a disorienting effect in which what was once familiar becomes unrecognizable. Jameson’s insight was drawn from the work of Kevin Lynch, the MIT-based urban planner and author of The Image of the City, who had suggested that people’s relation to their urban environments relied on imaginary representations to properly orient them; the city, then holds a psychological dimension wedded to the repeated movement of individuals through the spaces they live in. Radically alter that space – or set off a cascade of seemingly never-ending modulations – and the ability to tap into that imaginary representation begins to decay. Jameson connects this insight to people’s relation to the social system as a whole – but the baseline analysis of the city does indeed remain instructive, particularly in our era of hyper-gentrification, ICT integration and network immersion, all powered by dynamic flows of capital and governments, local or otherwise, seeking to capitalize upon them. Who hasn’t felt disoriented in returning to a neighborhood they once knew well, only to find that is had been dismantled and reassembled in new form? Or, in a register not at all unrelated, moved through the non-spaces of the new mega-urban metropolises, guided by streets woven around towering monoliths of concrete and reflective glass, and felt at once hyper-connected, yet so strangely lost?

For some time theorists seemed to dance in this dizzying sensation. The more the flows of capitalism became detached from its capture by regulations and nationally-imposed boundaries, morphing from industry-based to financial and speculative in nature, hot-wired into an emergent global information-processing network, the more people talked of immateriality, linguistics, processions of signs and subjectivities. The dense material foundations that were coming together seemed to pass unrecognized, pushed off into obscure academic disciplines and the margins of radical debate. Even as cities came to quite literally be recarved in the image of income inequality and climate change was accelerated more and more by this infrastructure, it remained largely as background noise.

Over the past few years, something has thankfully changed. Various books have emerged that confront, on one hand, the immense scale of the transformations around us, and on the other, illustrate the deep materiality of these forces. Offhand, I can think of Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media, and Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty as exemplary works in this tendency, each elucidating how much our world has changed, and how we need better, newer tools to approach it – and indeed, each acts its own kind of tool, a unique apparatus through which we can orient ourselves, analyze, and act within and against this system of systems.

Stephen Graham’s Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers is another great work in this tendency, and is a remarkable achievement in its own right. Like Easterling, Graham reveals the way common ‘protocols’, so to speak, appear across the globe in accordance with the flows of capital and power. Like Parikka, he digs deep below the surface to reveal the elements that are not immediately apparent. And like Bratton, he is sensitive to the way that traditional representations of approaching space – the two-dimensional territorial plane framed by a fixed polity, namely – are almost wholly defunct and in need of scrapping. Indeed, the “vertical” spoken of in Graham’s title is a reference, in his words, to the way in which “human societies are increasingly dense and stacked societies, in which uses of space are built upwards and downwards with ever-greater intensity within geographical volumes.” This verticality stretches from outside the envelope of the earth’s atmosphere, where orbital satellites form an unseen and far too often unacknowledged role in managing daily affairs (be they personal, economic, political, and even militaristic), down through “ultra-deep” mines, embedded so within the geological strata that elaborate refrigeration systems are necessary to prevent the miners from being baked alive. In between these two extremes, Graham draws our attention to the world from strange and unexpected vantage points: the cockpits of bombers planes and underground military command bunkers, the precariously-built favelas of South America and the futuristic towers of Dubai, drone control rooms, elevator shafts, sewage systems, so on and so forth.

The image that emerges in one in which power relations are encoded into a sprawling, up-and-downwards-facing complex. Here, the skies belong to the wealthy, the state, the military, and the technical devices that uphold their power. Invisibility is key: the hidden military satellites and the private elevator rocketing to a celebrity’s private penthouse both follow similar logics. Below, in the crevices, cracks, ground surface, and clogged streets, the increasingly pauperized mass of humanity. There are exceptions, of course, to this rule – the military has its own interests in cultivating its own command-and-control systems deep below the earth’s surface. Besides these exceptions, however, the overall cartography can be glimpsed in these passages from Graham’s chapter on housing:

‘The experience of looking up at privilege, the experience of looking down on the masses, now defines Guatemala City’. From the patios, pools, cocktail bars and penthouses on the top of the towers and podiums, the violent landscape of the city far below become a spectacle to be consumed from afar. A troubling and gritty place is rendered as a tranquil spectacle, an aesthetic background… People inhabiting the favelas compressed in Guatemala City’s valleys, meanwhile, must ascend the 300 to 400 steps up to the higher city to work, get cellphone coverage, or call for emergency services (which will often decline in any case to descend to the barrios). They will also experience the rubbish, waste and polluted water that is dumped from the higher city above. The language of the favela splits urban life into abajo (below) or arriba (above). ‘The police are arriba and would never dream of walking abajo, one favela resident laments.

Elsewhere, police action strikes from arriba, perhaps in the form of the drone circling 24/7 over cities in Pakistan or in the Gaza Strip. From up on high, the drone even becomes a force capable of shaping the city to the ideals of its rulers: such is the intent of “Gorgon Stare” systems developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is “[a]imed at surveilling whole cities to build up patterns of ‘normal life’ against which the abnormal activities of targets’ might be identified”. Elsewhere, Graham notes the relationship between bombing and urban design, pointing out the strain in modernism running from the Italian Futurists to Le Corbusier that linked the levelling of cities to the fostering of tabula rasas for building future societies. At the core of Graham’s book is the suggestion that this future is here, and it is now waging a permanent war through the center of everyday life, regardless of where that life being lived on earth.

Popping up occasional throughout the book are reflections on the ways the shift of spatial power from two dimensions to three dimensions brings with it a host of new dynamics that shape the way people confront this power. Activists and artists (Trevor Paglen being the one who springs to mind the quickest) have poured over declassified information and military mission patches to reveal the trajectories of and photograph “black satellites”, orbital spy satellites that allegedly do not exist. Gigantic mansions might be hidden from the view of those in the slums, but the clandestine circulation of Google Earth print-outs of these mansions have set off a class war in Bahrain. Large images of people are faced upwards in Pakistani villages in bids to disrupt from the intrinsically dehumanizing logic of the drone strike by appealing directly to the drone pilot. Yet for every way that new possibility spaces open up, others become untenable. The removable and replacement of dysfunctional public housing – such as the famous destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, famously described as the final moment of architectural modernism – has paved the way not for better and more effective housing, but for towering luxury palaces for the rich. Similarly, attempts to improve conditions in favelas, particularly those precariously constructed on mountain slopes, have brought with them gentrification processes that have begun, once again, pushing the poor out.

Studying dynamics such as these allows us to assess possible means of alleviating these conditions, or even find ways to confront head-on the forces that put them into play. Graham hints towards this, particularly with the aforementioned observations, but this is not the overarching emphasis of the book. At the end of the day, Vertical is not simply an exploration of evolving spatial politics, but an old-fashioned piece of muckraking journalism – which is another neglected, yet utterly essential, tool that desperately needs refashioning in our post-postmodern era. Graham provides us with a good template for how it can be done today: by building a toolkit that allows people to orient themselves in the confusing meshwork of what currently is, but without dipping into any impulses to normalize this meshwork. We may feel a little less lost, but this is simply because the antagonisms are cracked open to us to see.

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5 Responses to The Vertigo of Power: A Review of Stephen Graham’s “Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers”

  1. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    A good review of Stephen Graham’s new book, Vertical.

  2. Reblogged this on swasteeranjan and commented:
    So many things to read, but mostly I am fascinated by so many responses to Frederic Jameson – Is it a post-post epoch? I think so.

  3. Pingback: The Vertigo of Power: A Review of Stephen Graham’s “Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers” | environmental critique

  4. JPMelo says:

    Reblogged this on Last Transmission from the Land of Monsters and commented:
    A review of what sounds like a must-read

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