Subversive Knowledge & the Negation of the City, or, the Awakening of the Critical-Manipulator

The progress of capitalism seems inevitable; its process of technological refinement and innovation feels infinite and is known to be integral to the market, an ethic of constant growth mandates consumption and production at astonishing rates. Some find hope in this, the capacity of capitalism to deliver technological possibility—to them this represents the ultimate hope of capitalism: to deliver humanity from want through a qualitative shift in the technological paradigm—in short, the possibility of the pacification of existence.[1] This tendency of the market towards expansion and improvement constitutes not only a kind of eros, however, but also a kind of thanatos—a drive towards technological destruction is contained in the same kind of capitalist-utopian tendency that allows for the pacification of existence.[2]

In this paper I will show that after the death of the capitalist-utopian drive, the remnant society contains an immanent possibility for critical resistance which goes beyond capitalism and can postulate new forms of society; subsequently I will show that this possibility arises due to a proliferation within the city of Critical-Manipulators who negate the capitalist-utopian system with the direct application of a subversive knowledge. Nowhere is this possibility more apparent than the once great manufacturing cities of the American Midwest, now known colloquially as “The Rust-Belt.”

These cities—St. Louis, Detroit, Gary, etc.—were once the American Ideal. They were cities in which every citizen had access to the kind of abundance and vitality which came as a natural byproduct of capitalism. The average citizen had a decent paying job, a car, access to food and a home; even those historically denigrated classes of society—the homeless, the black, the poor—were boosted by a wave of welfare which built a great sector of public housing, education, transportation and other social programs which allowed them access to the kinds of material wealth which the working-class was already afforded.

These projects constituted what Marcuse termed “The Welfare State.” In this state, capitalism uses its capacity to pacify existence to instead raise the standard of living to such a degree that the possibility of critique is lost. The individual becomes a subject of “the streamlined technical apparatus—set up as a separate power over and above the individuals.”[3] It is the manifest capitalist utopia in which no citizen seems capable of making the Great Refusal which would call the actual alienation and inequity of the society to task—and why should one? In the capitalist-utopia one has their needs apparently met; their drive towards reality equally balanced by the pleasurable, consumeristic pastimes which quench the libidinal forces of the mind.

Refusal of the system has been negated by its own operation: “I ride in a new automobile. I experience its beauty, shininess, power, convenience—but then I become aware of the fact that in a relatively short time it will deteriorate… I feel cheated. I believe that the car is not what it could be, that better cars could be made for less money. But the other guy has to live, too… the tension between appearance and reality melts away and both merge in one rather pleasant feeling.”[4] Negation becomes impossible, the waste and excess—the very things which make the system monstrous and subversive—are the same things which make the easy life of the welfare state possible. The Capitalist-Utopia depends on the ultimate domination of the individual—those who work must accept their role and be happy to do so—they must sublimate their desires in order to be productive, but must also be repressively desublimated in order to ensure that negation is impossible.[5]

This system seems closed, perfect, impossible to dissemble—but there is a second phase to the capitalist-utopian drive—a thanatos which tears apart the welfare state. The embedded irrationality and inequity of the system—that which creates abundance and provides for domination—begins to wear thin the very structures it has established. Perhaps nowhere is this latent thanatos clearer than in the fall of the Pruitt and Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri.

A product of the Welfare State, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex was devised as a response to the inner-city ghettos of the working poor. Designed in the most fashionable style and provided with top-level amenities, they were called by some the “poor man’s pent-house,” and they did indeed relieve the conditions of poverty experienced in the ghettos which preceded them—often fifteen or more occupants per single-bedroom home, no access to heat or running water, no opportunity for education; The working poor felt a kind of gratitude to the city which provided them such lavish new homes—however, certain destructive policies were instituted whose intent was to maximize the productive capacity of the labor pool, but whose actual implementation led to Pruitt-Igoe’s ultimate destruction in 1972.[6]

Income-restricted rents forced many of the poor to remain in exploitative jobs, working men were not allowed to live at home, and families were not allowed to own radios or television—all attempts were made to maintain a state of constant sublimation and repression. This stress was coupled with improper funding and plummeting occupancies; the project quickly fell into disrepair, occupants were forced to maintain their rents even without jobs. The city began to label the residents as criminal, as irredeemable, the police began to refuse to enter the decaying complex. The pent-up stress created by the residents’ constant state of sublimation, the psychological demands of exploitative policy caused an explosive and angry desublimation. The city decided to close the project and demolish it less than three decades after its construction; many claimed that, with it, the welfare state also died.[7]

At the same time that Pruitt-Igoe was failing, the other cities of the American Midwest were reaching a tipping point. In Detroit, the same libidinal forces erupted in race-riots; in Gary, mass-layoffs from U.S. steel led to a rapid emigration of the rich; across the country capital dried up, wealth emigrated, crime rose—the capitalist-utopia imploded into a state of utter chaos no one had anticipated. It was the demand of repression, the welling up of libidinal forces, the impossibility of negation, capitalism’s great irrationality which led to the capitalist-utopian drive’s ultimate failure.

Today these cities bear no resemblance to the thriving and infinite bodies they were at their capitalist peak. They have become ruins hostile to capitalism, unworthy of investment and development; the “automata [have stopped] dead and set free the unorganized mass they once served to articulate,” they have violently expelled the life-blood of capital which once fueled them, they have become “the full body without organs.”[8]  What allowed for such an implosion? Was the ethic of social and libidinal containment with which the capitalist-utopian drive operated truly so flawed as to allow this utter failure of capital? Certainly not, these drives were perfect and complete—utterly efficient in turning the protesting labor pool into the compliant and satiated masses plugged into the capitalist-utopia-generating-machine; but inscribed on the surface of the capitalist utopia is the conflicting drive to expel the worker, to technologically replace the masses, to become a closed loop—“the death instinct: that is its name, and death is not without a model. For desire desires death also, because the full body of death is its motor, just as it desires life, because the organs of life are the working machine.”[9] It is this conflicting drive which allowed the city to decay, to expel its own productive forces and die.

In this decay, however, there is life. The remnant population, which no longer has access to the abundance and ease of the welfare state, must come to survive beyond capitalism. In the vacuum which follows the death of a capitalist-utopia, new modes of social relation can be developed and discovered; “desiring-machines work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[10] In the once nullified minds of the individual, want now breeds desire and dissent—the Great Refusal, once thought impossible, is again possible out of pure want.[11]

This want awakens the possibility of a critical resistance to capitalism, it brings about the age of the Critical-Manipulator: those citizens who now use a subversive knowledge to challenge the once rational structure of the city in their daily lives. In doing so they create new possibilities for navigating, for thinking about property, for re-appropriating knowledge, and for removing the alienation which has built up between themselves and other citizens.

The case of the scavenger comes to mind as an early form of the Critical-Manipulator. The dissolution of capital dissolves also the strength of the notion of private property which it affords. Marx himself observed these same forces when he struggled to settle the case of wood theft from church-owned property; before capitalism, the retrieval of fallen branches from this land was considered acceptable and even necessary—but under capitalism the means of production are owned by a ruling class, and the retrieval of these means by the proletariat must become criminal.[12] The scavenger acts much like this wood ‘thief’ as they attempt to re-appropriate the means of production in whatever form they can; the raw-material of abandoned property becomes the means of their individual subsistence.

Consider the case, once again, of St. Louis, a city known for its beautiful masonry—the clay from this region creates especially strong and valuable bricks. Under Capitalism, the material was inexpensive and easy to acquire—but its exploitation as resource has led to a depletion of that clay and has today led to the increasing value of St. Louis brick. The scavenger-in-potential, now attempting to subsist in increasingly dismal circumstances, sees this value; they see the abandoned structure as the peasant saw the branches in the forest. In their abandoned state, these structures also pose a risk to the remaining population—the abandonment and decay invites in criminal activity from elsewhere; body dumps, muggings, and other violent crimes begin to become more numerous in abandoned areas—where else is no one apparently watching?

The scavenger, seeing both the monetary potential of the brick and the nuisance of the abandoned structure, decides to act by dismantling the building. There remains, however, the problem of actually acquiring the brick—it is here that the scavenger-in-potential becomes a true Critical-Manipulator; brick buildings tend to be supported by integral wooden framing which prevents the buckling of the walls. When other such structures have caught flame—often by their owner to collect on the insurance money—the Critical-Manipulator sees the almost libidinal power of the fire department’s hoses, how they have caved in apparently solid brick masonry elsewhere; and so the scavenger-in-potential sets fire to the structure which causes their neighborhood harm and which no-one cares for—they use the city against itself by allowing their work to be begun for them by the very entity which would condemn their action as criminal. Once the flames settle, it is now easy work to break up and cart off whole swathes of uncared for and potentially dangerous city—sold to the unwitting investors in other cities so that the Critical-Manipulator can afford the cost of living.

This is the Critical-Manipulator in essence—an individual whose capacity for negative thinking has been awoken by the struggle for existence, but who also innovates a new mode of social relation in doing so. In the case of the brick-scavenger, we see an innovation in the way in which private property is viewed; like the peasants Marx observed taking sticks from the property of the church, the Scavenger uses the forgotten and now dangerous pieces of the city as resource and changes the way in which private property is thought about in the post-capitalist society. To them, private property is not sacred if it poses a risk to the community—other modes of ownership engage and conflict with the property in decay; community-ownership supersedes private-ownership, so the one who dismantles the decaying structure performs a civic duty.

How do we know that the community actually sees this activity as such and not as criminal? Perhaps the new mode of social relation is not so important of an innovation if no-one recognizes that something different is occurring in the post-capitalist city. However the community in which the scavenger works becomes an accomplice in the crime against private property—the community harbors the scavenger. When pressed by the police, who inevitably notice the missing brick, community members deny knowledge of the activity. They accept that the private ownership of the property has become a negative influence and they understand that what the Critical-Manipulator does is not criminal per se, but some other more basic force of ownership—we know that they understand this new mode of social relation when they choose to harbor the scavenger.

After the scavenger other, more unexpected forms of the Critical-Manipulator arise. One of the most promising comes in the form of the urban artist; individuals who use the city as a medium upon which the Great Refusal is once again possible. Billboards are “edited,” street signs witticized, abandoned bank halls transformed into spaces in which the city is questioned. The society which came before now “reappears only as ‘quotes,’ residues of past meaning in a context of refusal;” the graffiti artist returns the once reified form of the city to what it truly is: an unfulfilled promise, a ruin.[13]

For the Critical-Manipulator, art becomes not only a means of defense against reality but also a means of social defense. Tyree Guyton’s famed Heidelberg Project serves as an archetypal model. The project arose out of frustration at the state in which Guyton found his childhood home. The neighborhood had fallen into a typical state of decay for Detroit—abandoned buildings were burned in search of insurance money, violent crime began encroaching, police began to refuse to patrol the area. One home had become the epicenter of a sex-trade which saw the brutal rape of several young women, the murder of several others. Guyton, fed up with the pain, decided to take the refuse of the city itself and turn the home into a work of art which called attention to itself. Overnight, Guyton festooned the building in several thousand baby-dolls—the effort worked, crimes in the home stopped altogether; the space was no longer invisible, no longer comfortable to crime. The art became literal defense, the residual effect of which was the visible reduction of crime in the entire neighborhood. Buoyed, Guyton went on to continue his practice by covering the entire neighborhood in found objects, technicolor dots, and whimsical interventions. The project gained international fame, but Guyton maintained that the art was aimed not at global critique but instead at local defense.[14]

In a post-capitalist city, negation and critique become more than a piece of the social apparatus: art becomes social. The role of The Heidelberg Project in the neighborhood is unmistakably so, it is aimed at the improvement of the total neighborhood condition as well as critique. The Critical-Manipulator takes Marcuse’s “Great Refusal” and pushes beyond mere critique—it becomes a manifold operation which actively seeks to bring about actual social change by means of its very creation.

A final form of the Critical Manipulator can be found in the homeless. The reality of living on the streets requires an intimate knowledge of the city, a new kind of road-map which acknowledges refuge, alternate paths around the rational streets which the capitalists laid; this knowledge, gathered by each individual, affords an ever-growing catalogue of local history. One gentleman I spoke with in Detroit had lived for a number of years in the long defunct Michigan-Central-Train-Station. He told me the history of the building: why it had been located away from the city center, the kind of stone it had been built with, how it is connected to a network of underground tunnels possibly connected to the underground railroad, etc.—simply by having to survive, this man had gained enough personal knowledge to not only navigate through the underground network of tunnels, but also to become a professor of history on the particulars of his own home.

In these people—the forgotten and discarded—we see a third possibility for a new kind of society. One in which knowledge is not owned and bought, traded in diplomas and commendations, but by word of mouth. In capitalism, knowledge is a commodity and those who practice it—while claiming uniquely critical positions in society—are equally placated by their own material wealth, they lose the critical capacity which comes naturally with homelessness. In the homeless, a unique possibility for knowledge and education arises of its own volition out of a necessity to survive; the homeless trade this freely, a lecture for a meal or a bus-ticket, a powerful social argument in exchange for your momentary company. In losing the division-of-labor which capitalism mandates, which places a strong barrier between knowledge and the world, post-capitalist society may be able to regain its critical capacity through this kind of diffusion of knowledge among the entire society.

There remains, however, the state of the post-capitalist city—a ruin populated by vagrants, vandals, and thieves. How are we to return to a productive society given the reality of these cities? This critique offers some valuable challenges to the immanent possibilities we have observed—hope in these cities seems lost, they are desperate places clearly grasping at life; it does indeed seem impossible to find hope in such ruin, to see what was once criminal as the next mode of social existence. What this critique suffers from is one minor but key flaw: the capitalist lens with which it frames itself.

The city has reached this state not because of any fault of the citizens who remain, but because of capitalism’s own failure. The capitalist-utopian drive which seeks to psychologically control the labor pool, coupled with the drive to technologically replace the worker constitutes a latent thanatos which leads the system to its inevitable destruction. Through this drive, the system inevitably leads also to the death of its host city. Capitalism however, unlike the cities it destroyed, lives on—industry thrives with or without people. The society left behind, whose lives had been placated by the welfare state, are now forced to survive and innovate—forsaken by capitalism and its utopian structures, the possibility of negation awakens in the individual. We see certain new tendencies, which did not exist during the reign of the capitalist-utopian drive, take shape.

That is not to say that scavengers did not exist during capitalism, rather it is to say that they operated on different principles than those which we observe in the St. Louis brick-scavenger—here we see a social consciousness and ethic of re-use which makes them qualitatively different from the capitalist scavenger. Likewise the urban-artist (‘vandal’), and homeless (‘vagrant’) both existed during capitalism, but their abundance in the post-capitalist city and the new possibilities for social critique that they offer are likewise qualitatively different from their capitalist counterparts. These individuals are distinguished as Critical-Manipulators who apply a subversive knowledge in the active transformation of the city towards new social possibilities.

It is only when these people are related to their capitalist counterparts that they can be labelled as ‘criminal.’ In challenging the ideals of capitalism they necessarily threaten its existence—the scavenger challenges the notion of private-property, the artist challenges notions of defense and critique, and the homeless collect and disseminate knowledge without the division-of-labor mandated by the current system. By applying their subversive knowledge, these Critical-Manipulators remove the barriers of alienation, repression, and inequality with which the capitalist mode operated—nevertheless they remain threatened by the same forces which allow the very critique we respond to to exist: the accusation of criminality.

St. Louis has issued unique ordinances against the scavenging of brick; Detroit aggressively attacks the Heidelberg Project as criminal, burning down several of the houses which Guyton labored tirelessly upon; Gary shutters its homeless shelters and creates new anti-vagrant policies to attract business back to its downtown; all these cities implement policies which favor the creation of new capitalist enterprises while it actively represses the very citizens who have stayed and remained loyal to their home. The city operates to contain the possibility of social change just as it operated to bring about its own inevitable destruction at the hands of the capitalist-utopian system; it must necessarily label re-use as thievery, art as vandalism, homeless community as vagrancy because if it does not it knows that its dreams of return to the abundance of the welfare state will forever be impossible.

Great possibility for social change is immanent in the post-capitalist city—possibilities which remove the alienation, the psychological repression, and the impossibility of critique which capitalism mandated—but this possibility is haunted by the ghosts of an industrial past which threaten its containment and destruction. Michel de Certeau, in his analysis of the possibility immanent in everyday life, says of these haunted places that “there is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not. Haunted places are the only ones people can live in… these ‘spirits,’ themselves broken into pieces in like manner, do not speak any more than they see. This is a sort of knowledge that remains silent.”[15] To move beyond this silence and to tap into the wealth of possibility contained within the once-thriving capitalist-utopias we must confront the very spirits which lead us to call our neighbors criminals, to see hope only in capitalist growth and exploitation— we must let those capitalism has tread upon use their strength and resiliency to lead us into more equal modes of social possibility, if only we will let them.




[1] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

[2] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010).

[3] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 48.

[4] Ibid., 226.

[5] Ibid., 57–83.

[6] Chad Friedrichs, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Film, 2011.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Gilles Deleuze and Felíx Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 8.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 63–74.

[12] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Richard Tucker, 1st ed. (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1972), 3.

[13] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 69.

[14] Jerry Herron, ed., Connecting the Dots: Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007).

[15] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkely: University of California Press, 1988), 108.

Honors & Awards

This paper received the 2017 Philosophy Essay Prize from the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Ball State University, and was presented at the First Annual Phi Sigma Tau Undergraduate Philosophy Conference at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania; Dr. J.M. Bernstein, University Distinguished Professor at The New School for Social Research, gave commentary and response to this paper.

Works Cited

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkely: University of California Press, 1988.

Chad Friedrichs. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Film, 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felíx Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010.

Herron, Jerry, ed. Connecting the Dots: Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Richard Tucker. 1st ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1972.