Outlaw spaces: strategic reversals of power at the margins

Countercultures are often ambivalent – taken to be radical, yet only rarely engaging with politics. Can this ambivalence be put to work differently, those in outlaw spaces redefining democracy in unexpected ways? Deutsch

Krystian Woznicki Felicity Scott
27 October 2017

A refugee boy puts a flower on the fence as he waits with others on the Greek side of the border to enter Macedonia, near Gevgelija, Macedonia. Tomislav Georgiev/PA Images. All rights reserved.On Saturday 4th November, the Berliner Gazette‘s Friendly Fire conference asks: How is citizenship changing in times of war? Two speakers will be looking for answers: the geographer Deborah Cowen, whose books War, Citizenship, Territory and The Deadly Life of Logistics explore the politics of violence in the global age; and the historian Felicity Scott, whose Silicon Valley research sheds light on the emergence of the military-entertainment complex. Closing the three-day conference, this public talk will reflect the crises of citizenship in the context of states of exception. Here, Felicity Scott reflects on strategic reversals of power that may occur in moments of crisis.

Krystian Woznicki (KW): Today, computer culture is celebrated as counterculture and vice versa – a legacy from the Hippie days. What grounded their philosophy back then was a cunning understanding of the relationship between the government and police, on one hand, and outlaws on the other, as in Stewart Brand's supplement to the 1970s' Whole Earth Catalogue entitled "The Outlaw Area". Could you say more about their thinking with regard to that relationship and reflect what kind of ground this has laid for notions of citizenship?

Felicity Scott (FS): There are so many important facets to your question. I particularly appreciate your recognition of the complex and at times quite problematic interplay between emergent claims to non-normative citizenship and the nexus of computerization, forms of governance, and the police that was at work within the late 1960s and early 1970s American counter-culture. We need to think all of these facets together to recognize what was at stake and at play in the libertarianism fostered by a media-savvy figure like Stewart Brand at that moment—to understand how he could possibly have had such an impact upon the cultural imaginary of the period but also to understand the persistence of his “whole earth” and “outlaw” ideology today, especially within computer culture, with its apparently “alternative,” free-wheeling valence.  

We need to pay attention to how ideals to do with computers, alternative cultures, and critiques of police can be hijacked by powerful players, how they at times take on the semblance of radicalism without necessarily being so.

Brand’s “genius” lay in his ability to recognize the political ambivalence inhering within the indeterminate logics of emergent communication technologies, the science of ecology, and the idealism of new social movements in America, but even more so in his remarkable skills at mobilizing the ideals or sentiments at play, and even re-scripting countercultural appeals to liberty, transformation, and interconnectedness to particular ends. Hence the importance of his ability to bring together powerful figures from the military-industrial complex and institutions driving those transforming modes of governance with hippies and other new social subjects who radically dis-identified with the militarism and nationalism that underlay them.  

So, I wouldn’t want to collapse the many and quite variegated attempts to forge new modes of non-, or at least less-normative subjectivity (if not always of citizenship) that was at play within hippie culture with Brand’s rather cynical deployment of that culture to ultimately nationalist, or globalizing ends. Rather, I try to understand how they became so interrelated, and why hippie idealism so often tended towards, or switched to, a de-politicized subject position with respect to notions of citizenship, even while challenging conventional American understandings of what citizenship might look like.  

I am not suggesting that the nexus of computers, alternative cultures, and a critique of police and governing structures could not give rise to progressive notions of citizenship – I certainly recognize this is possible, and hope it continues to be – but rather trying to insist that we need to pay attention to how such ideals can be hijacked by powerful players, how they at times take on the semblance of radicalism without necessarily being so.

KW: To go into the politics of citizenship a little deeper: as in our non-transparent-corporate-government-complex contemporary digital culture, in the days of Brand’s counter-culture, the notion of innovation was closely tied to illegality. I wonder what implications this has had for constructing citizenship within – or outside of – a statehood protected by laws?

FS: Innovation is one of these tricky words that we have to interrogate carefully, for it is too often affiliated with uncritical narratives of progress – social, political, economic, technological, artistic, etc. – and used by dominant institutions and players to claim change as such, without marking its affiliated political tendencies.

Innovation has a positive ring, it stands in for the language of the “good,” and we hear it all the time, yet its effects are not always socially and politically progressive. Donald Trump’s political campaign and his mode of governing are, if anything, innovative. Such uses of the term do not mean that one should simply eschew innovation, or even the language of innovation, but that we need to situate change within the larger economic and political apparatus within which it is operating, to recognize its rhetorical and political valences in each instance.  

Innovation too might be put to work otherwise, to more socially progressive or equitable ends. So, in addition to the question of “how” to innovate, we need to ask the question “for whom and to what ends?” Hence, in part, my fascination with the seductive claims of Buckminster Fuller and, again, Brand, that innovation takes place in so-called Outlaw Areas, spaces not confined by regulations or laws, or so they claimed.

It is a dangerous fiction to believe that such outlaw spaces are somehow beyond politics, for they function within larger regimes of power and of sovereignty – we might call these imperialism in the case of Fuller or neo-imperialism in the case of Brand – but they also remain sites of struggles which retain the potential for reconfiguring some of these relationships. (Illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank are in this sense outlaw areas.) The innovations produced in outlaw areas touch down differently for different communities or different parts of the world.  

But to come to your question: the ambivalent topology of legality and illegality that I am fascinated with is very much at the heart of how I hope my historical research might haunt the present, so I am glad that you have drawn this out and made the connection to citizenship, especially as it relates to the political function of the contemporary state.  

Can this political ambivalence be put to work differently? Might the fluidity and instabilities serve as opportunities for strategic reversals of power?

Here I want to recall the forceful, repeated, and ongoing challenges to notions of state sovereignty emerging after World War II, and with them, we might say, the implicit challenges to notions of citizenship that function at the nexus of nativity, the state and territory. In other words, within the so-called New World Order driven in part by US-led forces of globalization, the effects of which mark our present, we have first to ask: “who” is constructing new notions of innovation, sovereignty, and citizenship, who is able to act in this zone of illegality, and to what ends?  

Access to what Brand celebrated as Outlaw Areas is not symmetrical, nor was access to political communities in which claims to citizenship in the conventional sense are effective. At stake in my research, then, is to question whether this political ambivalence can be put to work differently, whether the fluidity and instabilities that we can trace might serve as opportunities for strategic reversals of power, whether the waning of fixed or foundational relations between citizens and states might not open onto other political opportunities.  

This is not to underestimate the ongoing importance of the state as the domain of citizenship and rights claims. We can cite many examples from the civil rights struggles in the US wherein an illegality is transformed into its opposite through political struggle – such as where a person of color could sit or eat – the terrain shifting precisely through acts of citizenship. The state retains a key function in such transformation of the law, but we might also ask whether such acts can also take place within a post-national framework, or in other domains, and if so what that might look like.  

KW: The military-industrial complex served as a playground for computer-savvy hippies, who seem to have been complicit in the normalization of certain forms of lawlessness that culminated in states of exception. The collective Ant Farm can serve as a source of inspiration when searching for alternatives to these often dominant tendencies. In your work, you suggest that Ant Farm “open[s] up a space for conceptualizing and testing a networked society”. Can you say more about this?

FS: It is true that Ant Farm remains a “good object” in my work, even if I spend a lot of time trying to trouble and complicate the status of the larger apparatus in which they work and intervene – particularly their intimate relation to the military-industrial complex as manifest in the Bay Area computer scene, and their connections to Brand. I think there is something quite important in the way Ant Farm understood architecture not only through the lens of its formal, aesthetic, and functional dimensions, as is proper to the discipline or profession – although they don’t entirely lose sight of those dimensions, and subject them to great irony – but also as at once social, subjective, media-technical, institutional, economic, political, geopolitical, etc.  

In this sense, their work reveals some of the ways in which architecture is caught up with the coercive and discriminatory logics of a contemporary biopolitical apparatus, the ways it functions an environmental control mechanism with a normative bent, the ways in which it is endowed, quite literally, with the task of regulating the health, socialization, and productivity of the population.  But, importantly, Ant Farm also situates architecture as a site of political protest and refusal, even of semantic inversion. They offer examples of how, precisely through being so intimate with and imbricated within contemporary forces, architecture can also work, at times, to interrupt or rearticulate the interconnections at work within dominant regimes of power.  

They offer figurations of how to relate otherwise to this dominant apparatus, how to creatively redirect it or make it function to other ends. They take irony seriously. To put it simply, I think we can trace in their work evidence of an artistic practice that remains not-quite-assimilated to the techno-social logics pursued by Brand, demonstrating something like an artistic remainder or excess that marks the limits of those systems as they impact subjects and environments.

KW: Today, criminalized migrants are often without rights. Being so, they destabilize the nation-state framework and the contracts a state sets up, thus potentially expanding the notion of political agency. In this way migration can be seen as a social movement. Despite – or perhaps because of – their extreme vulnerability, illegalized migrants are capable of revitalizing politics and expanding and redefining the space of democracy in unexpected ways. Against this backdrop, I wonder whether you also see this potential: who is/was opening up a politically emancipatory space for testing citizenship at its legal limits or beyond its legal limits? In what ways is this still important today?

FS: One way to answer this question might be to speak more overtly to my recent book, Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency, which hopes to serve (in part) as a type of prehistory and even at times as an allegory of the contemporary expansion of techniques of securitization and forces of human unsettlement driving this contemporary phenomenon.

It does so by recovering case-studies or events from the 1960s and 70s in which architecture’s relation to such dispossessions and cynical alignments with the deterritorializing logics of neoliberal capitalism becomes legible, deploying examples wherein the heroic figure of an outlaw or frontier was articulated with emergency conditions (such as environmental crises, urban insurrections, or war) or with emergent, increasingly global techniques of power born of new institutional, techno-scientific, and geopolitical configurations.  

It is a dangerous fiction to believe that such outlaw spaces are somehow beyond politics, for they function within larger regimes of power and of sovereignty.

A key stake lies, then, in understanding the relation (or lack thereof) between, on the one hand, forceful dispossessions (largely but not exclusively those taking place in the so-called developing world) and, on the other hand, willing retreats or exodus from a political community that we find at play within the counterculture. So, if my writing on the American counterculture always sought to render visible the razor’s edge between progressive and less progressive political tendencies, tendencies too often simply taken to be alternative, radical, or avant-garde and only rarely engaging with questions of democracy, Outlaw Territories takes questioning that ambivalence into new terrain, working to uncover a series of encounters between American figures, practices, and institutions and pressures impacting the so-called Global South.  

The manuscript, I should point out, was completed prior to summer 2015, when Western media turned so much attention to refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa, along with other places torn apart by war, conflict, occupation, and economic and environmental catastrophes, to name only part of a litany of disaster. With the refugee crisis no longer bracketed as a Third World “problem,” and with conventional distinctions like us/them, inside/outside, access/foreclosure becoming increasingly convoluted, such questions now remain (and are likely to continue to remain) at the forefront of discussions in Europe and the West, both popular and architectural. But they have a longer history, one very closely tied, as noted above, to the expansionist logic of capital, which gives rise simultaneously to a seemingly ever-increasing deracination and unsettlement, on the one hand, and to rising nationalisms, borders, and barriers on the other, an anachronistic backlash to such fluidity fueled by xenophobia now often taking the form of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Within this framework, there are indeed many ways in which illegalized migrants have a lot to teach us about what it means to be a citizen today, how to make political claims from a position of extreme precarity, from the position of the outlaw. My hope is that such historical scholarship offers certain clues, and the “heroic” figures who emerge in that book are almost invariably actors from the Global South (from Palestine, Nigeria, and the Philippines) whose interventions in some of the United Nations so-called “world conferences” during the 1970s, open up spaces that facilitate new types of political discussion, including about what democracy might look like. In this context, the antics of characters like Brand take on an even more haunting profile as actors who in fact seek to close down precisely such openings.

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