Some reflections on the spectacle of neo-liberalism

by hannesfrykholmuma

forum gallery

Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops, Las Vegas, NC

Critical readings on neo-liberal urbanism sometime express an almost moral indignation over the visual appearance of this new landscape and its glossiness, surfaces, images, spectacle or simulacra. David Harvey’s text on urban entrepreneurialism is a good example of this reaction. In his critique Harvey notes that economy of the current city has entailed “ephemerality and eclecticism of fashion and style rather than the search for enduring values, […] quotation and fiction rather than invention and function, and, finally, […] medium over message and image over substance.”[1] So what are the things no longer there? “Enduring values”, “invention”, “function” and “substance” appear to be the things that have been marginalized in the city of entrepreneurialism. Yet, these words seem alien, even in the tradition of David Harvey.[2] Are they not part of an enlightenment project that disenchanted the world through rationality, economy and engineering, all in an efficient synergy with the expansion of capitalism?[3]

In the act of negating the phantasmagoria of capitalism, Harvey’s critique reproduces ideas of rationality and function that have been entangled with the capitalistic expropriation of life for the last centuries. Perhaps more importantly, this kind of critique misses the opportunity to challenge neo-liberalism in a realm that it has claimed for much too long; namely that of our fantasies. Instead of only calling for the loss of continuity and substance in current capitalism, it is interesting to ask why the expressions of “fiction”, “image”, “fashion” and “style” that appear in neo-liberal urbanism are so mundane and boring? In his book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy Stephen Duncombe writes:

“Between arrogant rejection and populist acceptance of commercial culture lies a third approach: appropriating, co-opting, and, most important, transforming the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change. [—] To do this means recognizing that consumer culture—its crafted fantasies and stimulated desires—speaks to something deep and real within us.”[4]

It is nothing new that architecture is deeply entangled with the current economic system. Even the vocabulary of architectural practice bears signs of this, as in for example the use of the word “project” as both verb and noun. The projective signals a direction, as in the “projectile”, but at the same time it is a temporary engagement. Pier Vittorio Aureli notes that a project “addresses a potential future situation, but in doing this it seeks to organize the available means towards a possible end.”[5] The project in this sense is not permanent but rather a transaction involving materials and work during a limited period of time. It reflects an economy that is built on instability and changes, where adaptability and transformation are signs of vitality.

Every new project is a form of adjustment to specific conditions and requirements. For Boltanski and Chiappelo the notion of the “project” is located in an economy that transcends its critical forces through a grammar of inclusion. They write, “[a]nything can attain the status of a project, including ventures hostile to capitalism. Describing every accomplishment with a nominal grammar that is the grammar of the project erases the differences between a capitalist project and a humdrum creation (a Sunday club).”[6] The concept of the project also entails an aesthetic dimension through the spaces and experiences that it promises. Sven-Olov Wallenstein argues that architecture always entails “prefiguring or ‘projecting’ of future human sensations: the architect composes a pattern of possible movement, a possible trajectory of the body”.[7]

The aesthetic dimension of the projective is related to a particular set of criteria for experiences in the neo-liberal city. The neo-liberal economy operates on a sensorial and bodily level. Investigating the aesthetics of the spaces of neo-liberal economy opens up for a better understanding of how desire is generated in relation to certain activities within this economy. There is in this sense an aesthetic dimension in any built environment, a sensorium that produces affect. To simply negate the sensorial aspects of the current economy as being the chimera of an underlying condition is to disregard the ways in which it operates to form subjectivities on a spatial and experiential level.

Hannes Frykholm


[1] David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 71, no. 1 (1989): 12f.

[2] Or maybe not, if we juxtapose the rational critique of Karl Marx to the dreams of utopian socialists like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon.

[3] Cf. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[4] Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (Ann Arbor, MI: New Press, 2007), 16.

[5] Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Project of Autonomy : Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), 16.

[6] The parallels between the contemporary starchitect and what Boltanski and Chiappelo refers to as the “great man of the projective city” is obvious here. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005), 111.

[7] Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 25.