Yesterday in class we were talking about happiness scripts, cruel optimism, late liberalism and exhaustion in the brackets of recognition, and the unequal distribution of emotional legibility, among other things. A student (Curry Chandler) gave a really interesting presentation about Smart Cities initiatives, reading, among other things, the way the language of big data and utilitarian rationality was used to made a total claim to the “social good.” In this sense, he argued, happiness is a “technology” (a la Berlant insofar as citizenship is affective, and Povinelli with regards to how the brackets of recognition involve surveillance and espionage, for daniel gross as a kind of contouring of hte social, and crucially, how Ahmed tracks the intrinsic nature of empire as the burden to promote the happiness of the many). In this sense, affective rationalities are used to justify programs that shape the physical and social environments of populations, and these populations are always already given “voice” through the gathering of big data.
However, mere numbers in a survey likely isn’t equivalent to “voice” in its thick sense. E. Johanna Hartelius has explored how a UN crisis response program mobilizes big data to respond “in real time” to crises, in their emergence, not belatedly. Populations are accounted for simply by being counted (numerically, biologically, as data points). Here political life and mere life blurs (Agamben is helpful here) and mere existence is commensurate with political existence, though, of course, planners operate on a separate and more elevated plane.
In the context of Smart Cities then it seems like languages of objectivity, progress, “innovation”, and utilitarianism collide to create a new sense of the “good” that takes on the status of common sense. Euphoria about new tools is elevated into a kind of abstract sense of flourishing. There is a lot here, but one thing that came out of the conversation was a small discussion about how city planners engage with questions of gentrification (tomo asked this) with respect to smart cities.
I imagine that this conversation is well trodden ground, but I’m interested in learning more about it. Several years ago I explored the relationship between GIS, systems of legibility, and gentrification narratives in a speculative key. In this contemporary conjuncture, there is perhaps a kind of continuity with respect to what is sayable and unsayable in the wake of technological optimism. Ahmed’s chapter on the Melancholy Migrant traces out how migrants become figures of melancholy insofar as they hoard experiences of injury and refuse to “let go” of racism, continually souring scenes of liberal multiculturalism. Paradoxically, these bodies that experience racism are resignified to be the cause of racism’s continuation in an ostensibly post-racial moment. And so there is a perverse duty NOT to bring up racism as a migrant body, what Sam Allen characterized as a negative duty not to say, and a positive duty to share objects of happiness (national identity).
I think that this imperative to not speak the name of structural violence inheres in gentrifications discourses (or silences) in the wake of urban development. In a neighborhood listserv, “Next Door Lawrenceville” a neighbor raised the seemingly dead horse of gentrification in a lament about how grandmothers are being priced out of the neighborhood (race was explicitly NOT stated, another instance of the duty to not name racism). There were a variety of responses, some in the register of offense (you criticized boutique shops, but I am a boutique shop owner and I’ve put labor and heart into the neighborhood); some tracing out structural discrimination to ALMOST point out how racism is enacted in gentrification (Black folks were excluded from post WWII home ownership programs and neighborhoods like Lawrenceville were part of redlining practices where poor and people of color are relegated to amenity-poor, low-quality housing stock and wealthier and whiter folks are concentrated in more pleasing districts, so, “gentrification” is not bringing social goods in, but taking advantage of a long term process of real state devaluation that sets the stage for revaluation by developers who have the resources and liquidity to intervene in impoverished zones); and calls for civility (let’s all get along). In this strange scene, hurt feelings, haunting stories of structural violence, coagulate in a message board that is policed by an imperative to not get too combative. Among other things, what is notable is the repeated trope of how it is NOT a conversation about gentrification but a rehashing of “old/new lawrenceville.” This violent temporal generalization makes gentrification a story of progress, and complaints not only the symptom but cause of ill-feeling, but also a kind of nostalgic anachronistic discourse. Finally, what Ahmed seems to point out is that actually engaging questions of social difference involves uncomfortable conversations, agonism instead of consensus.