Nomos: the silent victory of the managers
“[The law] is war itself, and the strategy of this war in action.” -Michel Foucault
“The word ‘law’ has but one meaning: the law of nature is not a rule of duty but rather the norms of a power.” -Benedict de Spinoza
We agree with Carl Schmitt when he writes that “All political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical meaning. They are focused on a specific conflict and are bound to a concrete situation; the result (which manifests itself in war or revolution) is a friend-enemy grouping, and they turn into empty and ghostlike abstractions when this situation disappears.” This agrees with our understanding of stasis and civil war as underlying the political. But this desire for internal unity, hinging on the recognition of the outsider as enemy, is thoroughly shaken by the principle of civil war. Civil war, being a disease that ruins the unified politics founded on it from within (as it ruins the body affected by it in its blood) must be expunged. But who is authorized to expunge a disease that precedes and undermines any legal subject?
The idea that the law could exclude civil war must be discounted from the outset. If we take for granted the notion that sovereignty is defined by the ability to decide and follow Schmitt in the conception that the sovereign whoever decides on the external enemy and on the state of exception, it remains an issue how the sovereign could decide to exclude civil war. Because any exclusion would be in response to the perceived civil war (“I banish civil war from my domain”), it must itself be an act within and of civil war. This means that “the very element of transcendence that [the sovereigns exclusion] seeks to exclude is that which founds its purported immanence” (Dimitris Vardoulakis). We’ve shown that alongside the traditional narratives of the abstract-philosophical conceptions of the political in Hobbes is the parallel understanding that conflictual relations are being played out within and with the same discourse of “social contract” and “civil society.”
So what, then, is “law,” and how does it relate to civil war? What concept of law makes sense within the interplay of civil war? Surely, the idea that law is enforced legislation promoting the interests of some group, primarily enacted by means of direct violent force, seems attractive. That is definitely an aspect of law (which we will return to) but it doesn’t clear up the basic ambiguities inherent to the term. It might even promote some other ambiguities and mythologies that we’ve already touched on, like the idea that there is a single class who uses the mechanisms of the “state” to assert its interest over another, apparently primeval class.
There are essentially three basic concepts of law in the West: The Greek nomos, the Roman lex, and the Hebrew commandment. The Greek word nomos, usually translated as law, is more accurately rendered as norm, for it does not resemble what we recognize as legislation or prohibition. How does this physical norm function? First of all, we mean “physical” in a literal way. In the Western legal tradition, “law” and the “political” did not take place in the same space. The “law” or nomos was a sacred space, a no-man’s-land between the public realm of the city and the private realm of the home. The law in itself is a liminal space (Latin, limes), a threshold that separates political space from the outside. Only what occurred inside or outside the enclosure could be “political” or “economic.”
The law has here a tripartite function: land-appropriation; division of the territory or distribution and allotment of goals, identities, functions, and goods; and production, use, or pasturage. It refers first to the enclosure of land, and not necessarily in a wall structure. The nomad who stops to pasture institutes a kind of indeterminate nomos on the land. He appropriates it, divides it, and uses it. This original spatial appropriation is beyond the law and before the law but it’s also the very thing that makes a legal order possible at all. Locke called it “radical title.” Appropriation, division, and distribution are the archaic ritual elements of norms and laws and the only thing that guarantees their actualization. Remember that the founding act of Rome was when Romulus built the first wall, which occurred in the midst of the war between the brothers. Remus jumping the wall was a transgression of the new sacred boundary intended to bracket war to the outside. Prior to every question of law, of legitimacy, and of legality, prior to every legal, economic, or social question, we must ask: where and how was this space appropriated? By whom? How was it divided? Produced?
These are the first questions to ask in order to reestablish the link between law and space, law and architecture, law and infrastructure. Infrastructural shifts occur without being spoken nor theorized, and yet they are the real manifestations of a political bracketing of civil war. To equate law with infrastructure is to argue like Spinoza and say that the law has absolutely no sense outside the practical functions of a norm. The physical environments in which we live are not the “means” of a power. To say that would be to assume that space is neutral and that certain spatial elements —a particularly high wall or an obviously racialized highway placement— are the coercive means of a power that exists prior to that enclosure.
Space is the medium of power. “True power” does not reside in city hall, in the police station, or in the cathedral, rather, it flows within the connection between these places and every other, in the way bodies are compelled to appear, to move, to speak, and to be confined by their physical environment. Power flows in the manifest capacities of the sidewalk, the power lines, the trash cans, the fire hydrants, the parking spots, the entertainment complexes, the housing projects. The urban environment is not the expression of a deeper hidden power, it is the power itself in its most immediate form. This matrix of places and their inherent programmed capacities, “[f]ar removed from the legislative processes, dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them.” (Keller Easterling) The original enclosure that defines legality and potential of movement in general is what we call a normative enclosure.
It is significant for our concerns that the American continent is named after an explorer and cartographer, named Amerigo Vespucci. Long before the constitution, before the treaties, before the slave plantations, and before the Revolution, American normativity was taking shape on the shores of the new continent as soon as the colonists began taking measurements of the land. The radicality of such an action can be deduced by the response on the part of Natives. Some were just perplexed, others, like the Comanches, would kill the white men who measured and set boundary markers on their land on the charge of committing black magic. The Comanches had a nomadic normativity, an ever-shifting relation to a land experienced in temporary camp enclosures and semi-open hunting expeditions. This should remind us that there is no “non-normative” experience of space. Every habitation of space has an inherent normativity. What distinguishes the pre-Columbian normative spatialities from the European colonizers’ is their denial of hegemony, their interplay, their nomadism. The idea of applying ideal measurements to the land could be so odious to a Comanche because the tools used to establish that normativity had no relation to any tangible ritual practice or experience. The first period of enclosure in the United States was the period of exploration and cartography. Applying equal standardized measures to the land was the first act of European colonization, laying the grounds for the eventual destruction and subsumption of other normative patterns and relations.
There is still a widely held belief that power is concentrated and secretive, that there is some secret bureau or cabinet from which power flows downwards toward the coerced subjects. Even the classical examples of a centralized power order prove this thesis to be flawed, if not entirely false. The only period in Roman history in which the rulers vied for what they thought of as “absolute centralized power” was the period now referred to as the “Crisis of the Third Century,” a time characterized by the total breakdown of the Roman circulation of power. It began when the military general Thrax murdered the standing emperor, believing he could rule through military authority alone.
The subsequent attempts to centralize power were plagued by a mechanism described well by the urbanist Lewis Mumford: “Centralized power takes its origin from the sheer force and capability of a dominant personality: it reaches its negation when all these attributes and energies are absorbed by an official mechanism, whereby the original power is conveyed to a distant point through a bureaucratic and military organization.” The more the emperor-usurper tried to centralize an ever-larger region, the more partial and decentralized that territory tended to become, since for bodies and objects to move back toward a center a necessarily complex and massive network of pathways and human functionaries must be set in place.
Only Diocletian, by decentralizing and dividing the Roman Empire, could save the circulation of imperial power, but he did so by sacrificing the claim to absolute sovereignty. He certainly seemed to style himself as an “absolute” authority, but he did everything possible to make that authority distant and mystical by increasing the amount of local authorities (he doubled the amount of provinces, adding new and virtually meaningless hierarchies of local officials), developing inter-city infrastructure, and making it near impossible to see his person at all. The number of civil servants doubled under Diocletian. His “absolute authority” was nothing other than a ruse, the image of a false totality composed of a massive continental bureaucracy. In contradistinction with the “realist” style of portraiture common in the civil war period when everyone claimed to be the absolute ruler, the new imperial image was oddly surreal, homogenous, well integrated into buildings, plural and more than anything imminently visible, more like a signature over self-regulating processes than a sword at the neck. Roman emperors never had “absolute centralized power,” nor did they find it desirable. The Pax Romana, or Pax Imperium, the campaign of pacification and occupation established by Augustus, was characterized by free movement of traders, speakers, and soldiers within established trade routes. The steersman controls the city with streets and conduits, not with the sword, which is itself brandished primarily in transit.
What was essential to Roman counter-insurgency campaigns against the Jewish insurgents of the Judaea province was the opening of the field of battle to force the confrontation as facing armies. This appropriation of civil war by the military required first that the army force a more regular spatial organization (one army versus the other). The Jewish campaign had its successes not due to any notable military capacity, but to their use of underground tunnels, the ability to easily move around valleys, narrow and winding alleys, and hills. To prevent future revolts, the Romans (in addition to slaughtering or enslaving the rebels) leveled buildings and trees, keeping only the enclosing walls within which they would reestablish a province more transparent and more amenable to circulation.
The military emphasis on transparency and open routes is just as present here in Minnesota. The first major enclosure in Minneapolis, Fort Snelling, seems, like all military forts, with its high walls and concentration of military power in the heart of Indian territory, to contradict this strategic demand. But that would be akin to saying a train station is a building representing centralized power. The fort may have the symbolic function of representing American domination, but its function as a frontier post was to guarantee the free movement of traders and to establish consistent and manageable relations with the neighboring Sioux and Ojibwe.
The prison likewise contradicts the logic of circulation, since it gathers frightening and warlike dispositions in a single enclosed area. One could argue that for circulation to become the dominant spatial logic of the city, miscreants and social deformities need to be removed from circulation. In this light, the prison appears as a catch-all dumping ground for everyone whose social existence threatens mobility and circulation. One must not forget, though, that the prison itself must then protect itself from the threat of war inside. When the prison functions “well” prisoners are not just dumped and forgotten in one collective center, but must be ferried around both to job sites, or to new prisons to prevent insurgency if the connections they’ve forged have any explosive potential. The collective areas in prisons are, to whatever degree possible, physically arranged to prevent a successful attack and socially managed to produce suspicions between prisoners and paranoia about what the guards may be able to see. Likewise, one must consider the prison not only from the perspective of “lifers” and others serving long sentences, but also as a space in which minor social deviants are ferried in and out, branded as criminals, and forced to participate in check-ups with parole officers, court dates, and/or long transits to jobs and appointments from halfway houses. The prison is only one stop-off point in a fluid spectrum of spatial controls that have solitary confinement at one extreme and the payment of fines at the other. There is no contradiction between good circulation and surveillance, nor between freedom of movement and the minute management of transit routes.
Opacity, irregular spatial layering, and narrow slow passageways create a breeding ground for a multiplicity of normative patterns to be established and played out in the same region. Illegality has a special meaning in this context. It isn’t an act that breaks the law, but a spatial practice that unleashes political normative patterns. The hegemonic normativity favored by the city fleeing from civil war produces large, open spaces with easy visibility and free movement. But this “freedom of movement” is merely the freedom to get to the next place quickly. With no other possibility other than circulation, there is no way to attach yourself to a space. This spatiality doesn’t eradicate civil war. It redirects and scatters bodies that have the potential for intensive contact. The history of spatial and architectural interventions in the Twin Cities is the history of the progression of this singular spatial hegemony. We make no nostalgic claims that the “old way” was better, but rather that each episode of urban planning and renewal has been conceived in the same mythological matrix as a victory of circulation against dangerous, diseased, and unsightly entropy.
Perhaps each new generation of young idealists has looked with horror at the tightly-packed buildings in the urban core and thought that maybe they would be the ones who’d finally blueprint urban disease out of existence. We have no doubt such idealists exist, but it is equally true that every victory of “clean, open spaces” over “blighted zones” has also been a victory of the movement of goods and labor over unproductivity and “useless” space; of transparency, communication, and statistical mapping over opacity, secrecy, and local knowledge; in short, it represents the victory of manageable (predictable and smoothly connected) public space over the potentially dangerous, that is, unpredictable and continually shifting spatial reconfigurations made by vagrants and squatters. Of course, anyone who looks at these urban renewal projects will also quickly notice that the planners never really emphasized the human factor of their projects. A history of their major projects looks like a series of routes and transportation hubs (railroads, bridges, roads, barges) replacing people’s actual homes, with those affected rarely being compensated for their losses. Human beings are considered to be merely an aspect of the functioning circulatory system along with goods and information.
Despite its efforts at being viewed as objective and inevitable (even boring) the history of infrastructure is not without its rebellions and conflicts. When Minneapolis was still a new city in the late 19th century, some of the new migrants from eastern Europe formed a squatter’s village under the Washington Avenue Bridge on the Mississippi River. Today the Bohemian Flats is remembered as a short episode in the history of a quaint little city. When the flats were still inhabited, the men would climb the hill in the morning to work in the flour mills and lumber yards. Many families kept gardens or goats, and children spent their days gathering debris to supplement a small income. The city planners of the time certainly did not find the Flats very quaint. In May 1923, the police showed up demanding the residents pay for the ground lease or be evicted. According to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, a “near riot was halted” when a second court order was served on police, ordering them to halt the evictions. The squatters declared they would rather tear down their houses than be evicted. In 1919, the city bought the land from nonresident owner Mary Leland for 5,000 dollars, and now began to demand rent. Many of the residents refused to pay rent and were called to court in September 1922. They didn’t show. In 1923, the city managed to evict most of the squatters to make way for the Municipal Barge Terminal. Many would leave of their own accord after the construction. By 1931, only fourteen houses remained. The bridges, roads, and barges in the Twin Cities were not built overnight to the applause of a benefiting population, but with heavy machines watched over by weeping residents and troops of armed guards.
In St. Paul, similar processes were under way in the “Swede Hollow.” The Swede Hollow was a makeshift immigrant community that began as a Swedish settlement in the 1850s. Waves of Polish, Italian, and finally Mexican immigrants would follow making it one of the larger dense and unregulated marginal communities in the cities at the time. In the 1950s, the city decided to evict the last squatters on grounds of health code violations and burned the make-shift village to the ground.
The Gateway District in downtown Minneapolis was the largest and densest center of these iniquitous and dangerous spaces of opacity and entropy for the Twin Cities. By the 1950s, businesses were leaving for the suburbs and the Gateway filled with disreputable transients unwelcome in any other part of the city. Kristin Delegard from Historyapolis.com characterizes it well:
In the historic heart of the city, [where] the alcohol flowed freely, the idlers wiled away their days in the park and on the sidewalks; the prostitutes were brazen; men sought sexual encounters with other men; the buildings were dilapidated and vermin-ridden; the communists and Wobblies called for the overthrow of capitalism and the American political system. Its flophouses sheltered people not welcome elsewhere. In these squalid conditions, a community took shape that included exhausted lumberjacks and harvest hands; alcoholics wanting to drink out their last years in peace; Chinese men seeking respite from West Coast racial violence; Native Americans looking for anonymity in the big city.
It was because this avoided and misshapen area of the city housed the motley and dispossessed unwanted and fallen ones of our progressive metropolis that Fortune magazine, in their investigation of the causes of the 1934 revolts, wrote that the “revolution may come from the Minneapolis Gateway district.”
John Bacich, the “King of Skidrow” owned a bar in the Gateway district. His movie “Skidrow” is a series of interactions and shots of popular spaces narrated by Basich. In one scene, as two people roll scuffle in the middle of the sidewalk, Basich says he “knows you feel sorry for um. People say ‘yeah they lived a miserable life.’ But they said ‘no we don’t want responsibility and down here we can do what we want. We don’t have to worry about paying bills, raising kids, paying payments on cars or houses and this and that.’ That was their choosing.” His film shows images of men drinking in the street, some fighting, some who climb to the top of buildings “just to get kicks,” men tickling eachother, rail workers meeting to drink and play games with the homeless, a native man being tended to after a fight, an image of a woman named Mabel, identified only as “the chieftain’s daughter,” socializing with the “bootleggers, muggers, jackrollers [robbers of the drunk].” Say what you will about the blight and squalid conditions in the Gateway District or the Bohemian Flats, but, by cleansing the city of its “sickness,” the city lost places to gather and talk, to be lost for a while. These experimental forms of being together were accidental to the structures that stood in the Gateway, but, for the urban planners, they were considered potentially dangerous connections. The possibility that the architecture was shielding those acting in socially inappropriate ways from sight was what really mattered. When city planners speak of “cleaning up the city,” this does not mean they intend to “help” anyone achieve happiness or health, but that they intend to dispose of those elements they conceived to be a hinderance to the “healthy” circulation of material within the city.
This is clear from how the urban planners developed the Gateway. Between 1959 and 1965, 200 buildings were razed and around 3000 mostly transient residents were displaced in the largest urban renewal project in the United States. After destroying the park where hundreds slept at night, the city put up a fence around the grassy enclosures. The city planners of the renewal project would rid the city of the blight “in much the same way personal health might be restored by removing a clot from the bloodstream,” as one plan from the 50s stated it. The recurrence of this medical civic discourse is not incidental. The word “blight” became accepted as an architectural concept when city planners began to see themselves as surgeons, removing diseased and unhealthy zones of urban space. The economic hopes involved in leveling the dense and unprofitable center of the city are obvious, but the fact remains that through the 60s and into the 70s, much of the area would remain empty lots and thoroughfare. Even an amateur could have designed a more economically viable plan for slow developmental transition. The zealousness with which they destroyed the area has more to do with ridding the city of people they called “loafers” and “undesirables.” As the 1956 Downtown Council Renewal Plan states, they intended to “increase the quantity and quality of people coming to the [Lower Loop or Gateway].” No one would move a six-million pound theater —one of the heaviest buildings in the world at the time— on rubber wheels and proceed to blast opera music on the empty block to repel drug dealers, as the later urbanists of the 1990’s renewal of Block E in downtown Minneapolis did, without being inspired by some deep civic anxieties about “undesirables” and their “disease.” What stands downtown now is a testament to the “healthiest” type of enclosure where the authorities need not even be consistently present, because people move through it like ghosts, always on their way to their job, their apartment, or a shop. No people, no interaction, no sickness. In the urban renewal of the 1950s, most of the area (besides a few of the original buildings) became parking lots and the rest was overlaid with massive wide roads and stark modernist buildings. Architecture actuates the opposite of inhabitable space when it produces passageways and conduits to carry you along to a place where your existence could be more profitable.
The replacement of dangerous space with smooth space is nowhere more obvious than in the placement of I-94. The map above overlays the interstate with a map from a sociological survey in the late 30s. The perfect exemplar of speed and circulation, the freeway, was placed in the center of the city’s diseased “slums,” “negro areas,” “workingmen’s homes,” and “foreign born” (in the words of the sociological survey) neighborhoods, demolishing anything in its way. That split is still felt today, especially in Rondo, a mostly black neighborhood in St. Paul that was effectively destroyed by I-94 construction. Joseph Rondeau, an immigrant from Canada bought the area in the late 19th century. He was originally a squatter, but was forced to relocate after development began on the river in 1872. Inspired to do something about the racism directed primarily toward his wife of mixed French-Canadian and Kootenais Indian background, Rondeau bought a tract of land for 200 dollars to create a “haven for immigrants” who would never be forced to move. He slowly allowed more and more workers and immigrants in the city to build on his land. Many black residents of the cities followed in the early to mid-twentieth century to avoid the blatant racism of the inner city and neighborhood associations and their restrictive racial covenants.
It makes sense that Rondo became the neighborhood of choice in St. Paul for the unwanted and the dispossessed. It was also an early site for urban renewal in the cities, whose planners wanted to “improve the atmosphere of neighborhoods” and “create a city with more speed and efficiency.” The first wave of renewal displaced 608 families, replacing their homes with a school, a park, and 24 acres of commercial development plots. Freeway construction destroyed 433 homes. The city provided assistance to less than half of the displaced families in finding a new residency. Worse was that it cut right through the center of the neighborhood, making movement and gathering between friends, one of the many neighborhood clubs, or families impossible. The original plan included a large land bridge, but this cost was cut in development.
How did circulation and visibility become normative imperatives? Although considerations of space and its connection to political organization started to form in Ancient Rome, it was in the 19th century that a political imaginary crystallized explicitly around the idea of producing new political organizations of space by manipulating infrastructure. The most extreme proponents of such a discourse would claim that the state is redundant, a mere representation of the dynamic movements of power throughout urban space. The city as conduit has its root in Haussmann’s overlaying of boulevards, railways, and sewers atop old Paris, a move that he celebrated in his Memoirs as the end of the medieval Paris, the end “of the neighborhood of riots, and of barricades, from one end to the other.” Ildefonso Cerda, the designer of the 19th century extension of Barcelona, likewise believed that circulation and visibility would solve the ills inherent to city life: “Railways and electric telegraphs will harmonize language, weights, measures, and currency. […] they will give rise to the harmony needed between the different classes within society.” One of the primary goals of the city as conduit is to prevent insurgency the possibility for factions to gather, and to make the streets wide enough that barricades would be impossible to build while allowing for speedy transportation of the authorities. Hausmann’s designs for Paris were a direct inspiration for the Minneapolis city planners involved in the leveling of the Gateway as early as 1917 with the “Plan for Minneapolis,” the main goal of which was to increase automobile circulation downtown.
A curious problem takes shape around this infrastructural counterinsurgency. The city as urban space has concrete spatial form insofar as residents are limited by their means of locomotion. The effect of the circulatory grid is that, as speed and mobility increase, the possibility of meaningful communication dwindles. The suburb, supposed to have offered a pleasant alternative to urban life, covered increasingly expansive distances after the creation of the personal automobile. As suburban space drifted to the outer rings of the city, it actually worked to dismantle traditional urban space rather than function as an alternative to it by emptying it of its enclosed form. With the construction of larger roads and the subsequent disregard for planning walkable distances came the end of walkable and inhabitable public space. Outside the inner ring, the expansive suburban traffic grids make walking unpleasant, loud, and dangerous. Where the difference between inner and outer city is gauged merely by quantitative factors of speed and circulation, we have no grounds to continue talking about the “city” as an urban form. Today, we are faced with a conurban grid that can’t be improved by architectural reform. It can only be broken down and occupied.
Such a proposition may seem daunting, but we have not lost the ability to gather. The Communards proved Haussmann wrong about the potential of his infrastructural space by building larger barricades. Today, infrastructural space is too complex to just “build the barricades higher,” but whenever people gather in public space dedicated to movement, they commit heresy against the norms of circulation and visibility and open up a possibility for experimental spatialities. Every occupation, regardless of the discourse inherent to it, commits itself to such an act, thereby opening up the possibility for a multiplicity of new normative patterns to be laid over the hegemonic circulatory conduit. If circulation is the apparent suspension of political contact, the occupation and the blockade are the methods that will hasten its return.
This practice is illegal, since it violates the structures of physical power itself. This spatial planning of power relations is clear when a group declares a march or a protest. On March 30th, the march to the government center following the non-indictment of the police involved in Clark’s death was large, no question. But the marchers, threatening the city with “more protests, and more disruptions,” were virtually alone. So alone in fact that we must ask: should this even qualify as a disruption? The infrastructure of circulation is so effective that it is no problem for the city to redirect traffic when they know about an event in advance. The police did not even feel the need to be there. We only saw a handful of them as we walked from a few blocks away. The city has designed and planned its citizens out of the possibility of political action in even the most conservative senses. The only possibility as far as space is concerned is to hemorrhage its conduits and set a new normative mosaic in the byways of urban space.
Perhaps then, too much attention has been paid to laws and not enough to norms and their circulation. What emerges from the tradition we call legal, is in fact a normative tradition. The loss of the meaning of nomos when translated by the Latin lex is an act of civil war we still have to come to terms with. Lex means “intimate connection” and it refers to an act that bonds two separate parties who require that connecting. According to Virgil, the people of Italy had no laws until Aeneus arrived with his colonizing army. At that point, laws were first deemed necessary. The lex comes into play when war is in existence in principle. It does not put an end to war, but creates new “alliances,” or socii. Hannah Arendt makes this clear: “The ambition of Rome was not to subject the whole world to Roman power and imperium, but to throw the Roman system of alliances over all countries of the earth.” The self identity of the Romans, the populus Romanus, owed its content to the war alliance between the Patricians and Plebeians, concluded in the Twelve Tables, the foundation of Roman law. This is law as association. Law as association and principle of association is not the establishment of absolute law, as the Ten Commandments tend to be portrayed, it is a complex, often contradictory web of connecting power formations between groups. Law removed from spatiality only has existence in the forming of relations supposed to prevent the outbreak of war. Neither the Greek tradition nor the Roman tradition had a transcendent view of “law.” The law wasn’t something that came from above, but between.
How are such relations formed? What relationship do they have with with we refer to as law and the legal tradition? At this point, we must to turn our attention to a particular kind of nomos, oiko-nomos, or economy.