Creative Maintenance: an Interview with Michael Hardt

Michael Hardt in conversation with Jean-François Prost and Marie-Pier Boucher

JFP (Jean-François Prost): The Heteropolis project specifically addresses the following paradox: as cities become increasingly heterogeneous, certain districts, or ghettos, continue to remain homogeneous. We can observe a very clear, even extreme, division between various social classes, ethnic groups and cultural communities in many global cities. Cities are composed of diverse monocultural, monofunctional and monogenerational areas that remain isolated and disconnected from each other. Some minority groups progressively distance themselves from the downtown core to gradually become invisible on the city’s outskirts or in dead-end neighbourhoods. Gentrified neighbourhoods come to be inhabited by a single type of citizen and are often completely devoid of children, elderly or other groups. The Heteropolis project examines the increasing lack of multiplicity in centres of power, exchange, and abundance. In Commonwealth you stress the importance of unpredictable and random encounters with those who come from elsewhere and who have a different culture, language, knowledge or mentality from our own. Our initial question is: “Is physical proximity with diversity a necessary condition to create the common?”

Favela in Rio de Janeiro. Original photo by Crystal Davis, World Resources Institute 2007

MH (Michael Hardt): Physical proximity may be necessary, but not sufficient. It’s true that one can think of many cities, and a long history of many cities, in which there is physical proximity without interaction. A classic is the wealthy neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro with favelas that are in close physical proximity. And this is true of many major metropolises. In fact, one can even go a step further and say that in many of these cases, there is interaction in addition to physical proximity, but that interaction is merely a degraded and hierarchical one. There are certain cities, of course, where you can see—strictly as a colour variation—the house cleaners and gardeners migrating into certain neighbourhoods in the morning and migrating out in the evening, usually by different transport than the rich people. All this is just recognition of a rather standard, modern, urban dynamic. So, what constitutes a heteropolis in this context? Is a city, for instance, already a heteropolis because of its radical heterogeneity that sometimes involves overlap and at other times involves separation? Or is a heteropolis something we have to make out of what already exists in a city? I’ve wondered, actually, if what you mean by heteropolis is what we mean by multitude. What’s key for Toni (Negri) and me (and in this we sometimes slightly differ in opinion from Paolo Virno) is that a multitude is something that we have to make. It’s not something already there and it’s also not empirical. And so it involves a political project. For Paolo—and this is perfectly rational and logical too—Paolo locates multitude really at the level of a collection or of a dynamic among singularities. And so for him, there can be a bad multitude or a good multitude. Bad multitudes can do all kinds of horrible things. We also think that there can be bad dynamics among multiplicities, but we reserve the term multitude for multiplicities that are organized in a specific way. In effect, Paolo understands multitude as an empirical reality that can be organized in different ways, whereas we conceive of a multitude as a political project. And that raises a question, then, about the concept of heteropolis. Is it an empirical designation of a space of heterogeneity? Or is it a construct that only comes into being after a certain kind of aesthetic or political action of composition has taken place?

JFP: For Charles Jencks, who might be the first to have used the term, heteropolis referred to an already existing reality in L.A. With Adaptive Actions, what we’re proposing is an investigation of what that reality could be or mean. We voluntarily left the concept undetermined and open to interpretation. Some see heteropolis as something more positive and others as the result of a very bad scenario. For us, the critical issue is that proposed interpretations must go beyond presenting a motley aggregate of heterogeneous elements. We thus presented heteropolis as a project that has yet to be realized or more precisely, as an inquiry that could reveal hidden conditions that might activate its development.

MPB (Marie-Pier Boucher): So the premise of Adaptive Actions is that, contrary to Jencks, a city might be cosmopolitan without necessarily being a heteropolis. In this light, for me, a heteropolis is definitely a creation or construct. It is not simply dependent on pre-existing differences, but rather has to generate such differences. It is not sufficient to just put a lot of differences together to form a kind of heterogeneous patchwork. So, it’s not just about coexistence, but about coming together.

MH: Right. I definitely take your point that an encounter does not require the most extreme differences. I tend to think about questioning which are composable relationships and which aren’t. There are some ways in which proximity and even encounter are not enough for composing a new relationship. In fact, what I’m wondering is where we identify Heteropolis. Is it in this condition of proximity and heterogeneity, which could look like a mosaic, or patchwork, or pastiche? Or does heteropolis exist in the composition of new bodies? For a city to become a heteropolis does it require our intervention to compose? And it’s not just about composing relationships; it’s about composing a certain kind of relationship. Master and slave is a relationship. And certain racial interactions that I know of elsewhere—which might not be quite so common in Canada, but that are common in the Southeastern US or in Brazil—are very proximate, strong and established, but remain ones of hierarchy and persistence. So there are a whole series of conceptual situations I would like you to work out. The first one is adaptation versus assimilation. And the other more difficult one is really adaptation and composition. So, what is the difference?

MPB: When you say assimilation, are you referring to the idea of integration associated with immigration policies?

MH: Yes, abandon your difference and become part of the nation. Often that is cast as a republican (in the French sense) versus a multiculturalist strategy. Maybe the concept of adaptation, as you’re thinking of it, doesn’t enter into this. But do you think that adaptation can be likened to assimilation and multicultural immigration strategies? The traditional view poses a contrast between the multicultural strategy often identified with Britain (but I think Singapore and Canada share this quite a bit) and the French republican tradition characterized by integration and assimilation. And I was just wondering if maybe adaptation fits within that… Or maybe it’s outside of that continuum… And partly the reason I ask this is because I think that to many ears, adaptation sounds like assimilation. Whereas I think you can see adaptation in a very different sense. Many encounters, of course, compose nothing. They compose no new body, in a sense that you have the interaction of existing bodies, be they social identities or physical bodies, but they create nothing really. By composition, instead, I mean the creation of a new body which clearly takes place at a social level, where an encounter between or among bodies creates a new and larger body. All of our bodies are already composed of relationships. And there’s always the possibility of composing new ones. So one thing to say about that is that certain relationships are composable, and others aren’t. There are certain encounters that generate something new and something better and certain ones that don’t. And then there’s also always the possibility of the decomposition or the destruction of these bodies, of any bodies and their reduction into fragments. It sounds to me, when you talk about adaptation, as if it has some relationship to composition, in a sense. It’s not about assimilation, in which the minor has to adapt to the major, but about encounters where something new, a third body, is created.

JFP: Adaptive Actions maintains a distance from assimilation and multiculturalism because before you can restructure or reinvent something, you need to temporally distance yourself from it.

MH: As you say, then, you have to decompose in order to compose. I think of two staircases that I’ve seen of yours. One is going into this lot and another is just sort of placed apart. What does that staircase do? Does it allow for a new composition? And how should we think about the terms of that? What kind of encounter is generated by the staircase?[1]

JFP: What’s interesting with such actions is that they emerge from individual spatial observation. There might be no intention towards facilitating encounters with the other, but the context attaches itself to a larger reality, which is that of those who inhabit the site. They may then choose to extend the action or modify one of its elements within the course of their daily presence in that space.

MPB: Another interesting thing with the staircase is that people might never meet face to face. Yet the staircase becomes a kind of vector for encounters where people form a kind of indirect collective. So the encounter remains at the imaginary level.

MH: That’s interesting. The artist is thus not in the position to construct a specific encounter. It’s not like the artist says, “I’m going put X and Y together and compose them.” It’s rather: the artist creates an opportunity for encounters and compositions to happen. But maybe they won’t. You can’t foresee, but you can create the conditions for a potential composition. I notice when you talk, you sometimes talk about humans, but you mostly talk about space. And so, it’s partly that humans encounter one another, as you’re saying, at an imaginary level, but it could be that the primary encounter is between the space and humans. And what’s being composed here is a new relationship between the space and the residents. What we’re trying to organize is a new relationship between the physical constructed environment and human subjects, which then indirectly links human subjects together. But I have a feeling that architects think more about the space and less about the human aspect… Or about how humans interact with the space more than about how they interact with one another.

[pullquote]The negation of space through the use or presence of new forms of communication (multiple television screens in bars, excessive cell phone use) is also very problematic and worrisome.[/pullquote]

JFP: Adaptive Actions operates this shift of focus from space to humans by observing how architecture is lived in and changed over time by its occupants or the environment. It’s still about space, but the centre of observation has shifted—something which will hopefully influence the designing of spaces to be less permanent and static. Architects conceive space—it is a big part of their job—but gradually it will be done differently and in a less controlling and authoritarian manner. It’s important to be sensible to both humans and space and avoid focusing exclusively on one or the other. The negation of space through the use or presence of new forms of communication (multiple television screens in bars, excessive cell phone use) is also very problematic and worrisome. The staircase and many other adaptive actions present a different context: there’s no contract. There’s no start or end point, which is quite different from when an architect is given a precise contract. Here, the action or the desire is created; it’s something which is invented as people come and go about their daily lives. It’s self-initiated and self-created and there’s no signature. It’s anonymous and it has a potential for appropriation by others.

MH: The design doesn’t belong to anyone, is without signature and also involves composition or the hope of a composition, but not one that has an end. So, can you tell me a little bit more about the desired duration and the maintenance of these actions? As the artist or originator of these types of actions, for you does the action’s success depend on its duration or is an ephemeral action just as much of a success?

JFP: The actions spark discussion within a space where people can decide whether it should be eliminated or destroyed. My position within the situation is that of an actor and I expect others to behave as though the nature of their participation is entirely up to them. I believe the notion of maintenance to be central.

MH: Let me try something and see if it works. Toni and I have been very concerned with questions about the maintenance or duration of the common. One way, at least for us, of thinking about it is in the ways in which it interacts with private and public property. I think that many assume when they approach these topics that the common is spontaneous and self-supporting, an assumption that quickly leads to the kind of disillusionment associated with arguments about the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons thesis refers to a specific essay by Garrett Hardin, but I think it comes up all the time without reference to the essay, and it goes something like this. The assumption is that if nothing is owned or regulated by the State, then neither will private property nor public property be tended to or taken care of by anyone. And if no one cares for it, it will eventually be destroyed. Whereas if someone owns that property, he/she will take care of it. And if the State regulates it, then the government will take care of it. Our response to that is that common relationships have to be managed, they have to be made full of habits and they have to have a certain duration or maintenance. I like that idea of maintenance. Toni and I, in a way that irritates many friends, think about this in terms of institutions. We need institutions of the common. And by that, we mean a way of taking care of things. So someone could say, just in a very simple way, “That field or that swamp or that forest, if it’s owned by the company, then they’ll take care of it. If it’s owned by the State, then they’ll take care of it. But if it isn’t owned by anyone, people will steal things, people will use it unequally or unwisely until it is ruined, etc.” And to that we respond, “Well, the way to regulate and manage or maintain our lives is not only through private property or State control. We can create mechanisms of self-management.” And I know that the terms management and institution irk… But think of maintenance. I mean, what would it be? So for me, in order for a common to meaningfully exist, there has to be a relationship of maintenance and also of managing in the sense of who gets to do what. So all you need is some kind of process of managing and maintaining the common aspects of property and not allowing it to be infiltrated by hierarchies or exclusions. To get back to our question, then: What can emerge in some of these actions is a kind of maintenance that’s not, I would say spontaneous, but it’s not either under the control of the artist. To me, it seems that we have two concepts of maintenance. One is a preservation of the same and the other notion, which seems to me is at least one way of my understanding adaptation, is a creation of a durable, lasting relation.

MPB: Would you say that the space of the common is the space of maintenance? If I understand you correctly, to enable the emergence of the common, one must go beyond simply redefining the distinction between private and public. However, could the common be generated in a private or public space in relation to the way one cares about the environment?

MH: Well in terms of land, it may be very difficult to see that the common can exist, because land, at least in most dominant societies is either public or private and there’s no third choice. Except maybe a squat, a community garden, or something like that, which in a way has been reappropriated. But, there are many other aspects to the city that go beyond land. The various cultural and other social relationships seem to me to be already common. And these are things that are sometimes positive, but many times negative, too. The air pollution in the city, that’s something that seems to be…

MPB: A bad common.

MH: It’s a bad common, there you go, and we all share it. But on the other hand, there are positive forms of the common throughout the city that aren’t regulated by either private property or the government. I mean the kinds of cultural dynamics that happen in a neighbourhood, the various artistic relationships. Some of these are negative too. It’s as if you have to put on different glasses to see the common because the way we normally approach life leaves no room for it. It’s as if we can only see the world as either private or government-controlled property. Those are the only two choices. I think that what artistic actions like yours and some political actions sometimes do is reclaim certain spaces from the public or the private realms. Reclaim the Streets, for instance, as an example of such a political action. I can imagine certain people saying, “Look, the streets were ours in the first place, they’re public.” But you quickly realize when encountering the police during such a political action that they’re really not ours. Same with public parks. And so sometimes, action is needed to reclaim those spaces. I’m thinking of a self-organized park in the Exarcheia neighbourhood in Athens right now, but I’m sure similar initiatives exist everywhere else, where an abandoned parking lot was turned into a park—the concrete got taken away and greenery was planted. People made it a common space. It’s not part of the city parks network, but maintained by a specific community. So I would say in terms of space, I think what has to happen for the common to become apparent is an act of reclamation. It has to be taken from public control. The Critical Mass bicycle events are a good example of this. They occupy the streets with bikes in order to highlight two things. One is how much the streets are not ours, how much the public is not really ours. Second, they try to create, to transform the streets into something that could be ours. Artistic action performs a similar function in that it attempts to reorganize our relationship to space. It can serve to illustrate both the ways in which it’s not ours, as well as the problems of it being property, either private or public. And then also maybe to create new ways of reappropriating it and reinventing our relationship with it or to it. It can also serve as a trigger. There’s something pedagogical about it. You become aware of what the normal hierarchy and modes of domination are when you do something like that.

Navarino Park in the Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens, Greece. Photo by Stan Jourdan.

MPB: Following up on the common elements of politics and art, could you elaborate on how you perceive politics in this context?

MH: This is a first attempt. It would have to be both a confrontation with the existing structures of power and the composition of singularities—an alternative composition.

MPB: But wouldn’t the relationship between confrontation and composition be the definition of resistance?

MH: Well, it could be. I’m sometimes frustrated with the notion of resistance because of its non-creative aspect. Some people conceive resistance as something that is almost parasitical of the existing structures of power. Certainly revolution would be something that wouldn’t just be the resistance to the existing structures of power. What I’m really lamenting is the dominant way that the concept of resistance is used, its non-creative character. A stereotype of a certain anarchist position, which I think doesn’t really correspond to many people who call themselves anarchists, is that, if only we could destroy all of the structures of power, then our nature, our natural relations of mutuality would take over and it would be a kind of spontaneous construction. What I want to insist on in notion of politics is that the constructive moment has to be managed. I mean, maintenance is required here. There isn’t a spontaneous social formation. It has to be organized. Autonomy is one way of doing that. Autonomy is something that isn’t spontaneous or pre-given. It’s something that we have to make and that we have to maintain. We have to make and maintain these relations and all of our compositions are also struggling with forms of decomposition. So, duration seems to be the central issue to me. And, like I said, Toni and I try to think in terms of institutions. As long as one thinks of an institution not as bureaucratic structure, but in terms of habits or repeated relations. It’s a relation that not only you can return to, but anyone can return to. That’s how I think of an institution.[pullquote]Often, resistance just happens on your Sunday afternoon, and then people go back to work.[/pullquote]

JFP: In spatial practices, resistance movements often limit their interventions to very marginal spaces.

Within the city, 99% or the essential of capitalist and generic spaces such as shopping malls, bungalows and entire suburban areas, is being completely ignored and left unquestioned. When resistance movements isolate themselves on the periphery, they avoid infiltrating “impure” spaces that are considered standard and mainstream. I think it is often those very spaces and situations which need to be rethought and inflected. The same could be said about renowned architects and professionals who largely favour high-end and “noble” projects such as museums, libraries or luxury houses or ideal contracts with little or no economic constraints.

MH: What you just said is also interesting on a temporal level. Often, resistance just happens on your Sunday afternoon, and then people go back to work. So the same way that you’re saying that resistance only takes place in isolated spaces, it also only occurs at isolated times. I agree with you. It’s a useful project both in terms of generalizing the space of resistance as well as its time.

JFP: In Empire, you speak about the necessity of working from within the centre, that is to infiltrate rather than to act from the outside or the periphery.

MH: I’m trying to think what that could mean for architecture. I am reminded of a collection of essays that Rem Koolhaas co-edited about ten years ago called Great Leap Forward.[2] The premise of the project was, more or less, that architecture theories pay so much attention to celebrated buildings, like the Bilbao Museum, but the majority of the buildings built in the world today are in places like the Pearl River Delta in China, and they’re built without star architects… fifty-story buildings going up every single day and that sort of thing. And so the polemic or the call of that was: let’s pay attention to these buildings and how they’re built. And so then, coming back to Adaptive Actions, can you explain how Adaptive Actions works in that mode?

JFP: Most adaptive actions work with various situations we encounter during our daily lives. They may be good or bad, negatively or positively perceived. There is an important temporal factor to consider. New buildings are linked to an initial and fixed architectural program or concept and are always more controlled, less transformable. With time they become less determined, more dependent on external realities and therefore more open to various types of adaptive actions. What is at issue is much less the private or public distinction than the undetermined character of a given situation.

MH: Maybe those overdetermined spaces only lend themselves to such actions once they’ve been made generic somehow. In some ways, an act of reclamation could be partly to take away the determined nature of such a space before one can create something new there. I’m making a parallel with Reclaim the Streets, or I guess, Critical Mass. A lot of what they’re doing is clearing away how we normally perceive a space so that we can make something else of it. That space is normally reserved for cars.

MPB: What’s interesting for us is to think of those spaces in terms of transformation rather than claiming them for people or objects. When you claim a space for a minority or an exploited class, you always put yourself in a relationship with the already existing system and you give it credit. So our claim is that in order to act upon those spaces from within, it is perhaps more worthwhile to reveal their singularity rather than to reclaim them in the name of something or someone. Perhaps this echoes what you say in Commonwealth when you speak about the common as being the encounter of singularities organized politically.

MH: In my understanding, singularity relates to multiplicity in three ways. First—it relates to multiplicity internally: a singularity is always composed of multiplicities. Second—externally, a singularity is always in relation to other singularities. And third—temporally, a singularity is always a becoming. All of this contrasts with identity. At least, Toni and I conceive multitude to be an organized multiplicity, an organized group of singularities. And so, it is political in that sense. It has, like you said, a political element. Differences aren’t necessarily in a process of becoming, which a singularity must be. And because a singularity is always internally different… is composed of multiplicity, then there’s nothing self-identical about a singularity. It is composed of heterogeneous elements. And it can always decompose. That point relates to the fact that it is in a process of becoming. Its internal differentiation can always lead to different relationships. So, what a singularity is—is a sustained relationship of sharing and open access. That’s what the common would have to be.

MPB: In What is Common in Communism? you put forth the idea that what we share does not constitute object appropriation, but relates rather to affective relationships. In architecture you often have an object or a building that you appropriate. Could such an appropriation nevertheless serve as a trigger for sharing?

MH: I was trying to understand an enigmatic passage in Marx, where he says that private property has made us so stupid that we only think something is ours when we own it. And so, what would it mean, then, to have something be ours without there being a property relation associated with it. You’re reminding me that I was questioning or trying to figure out what Marx meant by appropriation in that context, because he’s using it differently, like you say, than when one normally thinks about appropriating something as property. And at the same time he’s trying to rethink how we could have a different relationship to the senses—how we can have a new seeing and a new feeling. What we need are new senses in order to have a different relation to the appropriation of the object. And that seems really intriguing to me—what a new sensorium would be. A variety of aesthetic projects could be put under the rubric of creating a new seeing, or creating a new feeling. What artists often try to do is help people see differently, develop a new vision… Which I think relates, like you’re saying, to alternative modes of appropriating the object, or the object world. [pullquote]…we all have to maintain a dual relationship: you have to constantly envision and struggle for radical change, but also never assume it will necessarily happen.[/pullquote]

MPB: For me, the idea of developing a new sensorium is related to the possibility of transformation, of revolution. We were wondering if revolution, in the sense of change, could happen in comfort zones or if they are more likely to happen in places where tensions generate life-threatening situations.

MH: I don’t think the potential for revolution is limited to those in the direst circumstances. In the wealthiest and poorest parts of the world, we all have to maintain a dual relationship: you have to constantly envision and struggle for radical change, but also never assume it will necessarily happen. That’s the nature of the event. The event and significant social change always comes from the outside. It’s never a linear, causal relationship. It’s not like we could say, “Well, if we do this, then that will happen.” That’s what it means, in part, to say the event comes from the outside. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we should just sit on the couch and flip channels. Even though the event comes from the outside, the event is always prepared. There’s a sort of dual relationship where we can never have confidence that what we’re doing will have a certain effect, but we always have to do it nonetheless. And that the event is, in some sense, dependent on it. Many readers of Badiou easily end up with a notion of politics that only comes into play after the event. Indeed Badiou primarily focuses on the political activity that comes after the event—fidelity to the event. That perspective is important, of course, but I’m much more interested in what happens before the event, which is unpredictable. We have to recognize that our actions will make the event possible, even though we cannot know how in advance. It creates in us a kind of strange dual feeling, since we know that what we’re doing cannot be sufficient to the event. On the other hand, we have to do it nonetheless for the event to be possible. Normally saying you prepared it means that you knew it was going to happen or at least tried to make it happen. But composable events are prepared without knowing what can happen. And so that’s how we stand with regard to the potential for future change.

MPB: Aren’t we facing a paradox? Resistance should come from within but the event comes from without. How can we make something productive of this situation and further the possibility of enacting change? In Commonwealth, you say that habit is the common in practice, that it’s the common that we continually produce and the common that serves as the basis for our actions. So it seems that new forms of habituation would hold the potential to prepare the coming of external events. Or is it the external event that triggers new forms of habituation? In light of our discussion, do you envision specific types of habits which could raise awareness to the need for heterogeneous city development? Do you envision modes of activities that could activate or produce new forms of urban value that could further the development of an urban multitude or heteropolis?

MH: Yes, this is entirely paradoxical, but these are the kinds of paradoxes we have to live with in order to foster and be open to change. As you say, the constitution of new forms of life and new habits is a type of political activity that can prepare the ground for an event and correspondingly, a new event can open the situation for the creation of new forms of life. But it’s also possible, in the former case, that nothing new happens and in the latter case that we fail to grasp the occasion for change. There is no linear relationship or assured causal link. Sometimes we have to move forward as if our actions, small though they may be, were powerful enough to precipitate change, even when we cannot foresee what form such an event would take.

But this is really not as mysterious as I’m making it sound. Our primary focus remains our projects to create real and lasting social alternatives, which we have been referring to here in terms of composable relationships and habits and forms of life. Sometimes these projects prepare the ground for an event, a moment of rupture and change, which can open wonderful possibilities. But that cannot be our primary focus. We cannot be like the millenarians and end-of-the-worlders who are continually disappointed that the event doesn’t arrive. Instead of waiting for the event we have to work in the here and now, but when the event arrives, we have to be up to the challenge to grasp the occasion and take advantage of all it makes possible. That is a paradoxical position, I suppose, standing between present and future, but it’s an attitude we take comfortably in all political action.

[1] Adaptive Action #58:


Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Michael Hardt is the chair of the Literature Program at Duke. He is co-author with Antonio Negri of Declaration as well as the Empire trilogy (Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth). He currently serves as editor of The South Atlantic Quarterly.

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