"Digital tools narrow the space of the divide between oppressors and oppressed" says Saskia Sassen

  July 14, 2016 - 14:19   3424     Submitted by berrin chatzi chousein

Digital networking tools are often seen as playing influential roles in the Syrian, Egyptian, and Turkish uprisings— they narrow the space of the divide between oppressors and oppressed. This is clearly a very partial role, since the street was the key vector for mobilizing. The street was the core of these uprisings, not digital 'communication', according to Dutch-American sociologist, Prof. Saskia Sassen, who shared her personal opinions about cities, migration, globalisation, the future of urbanism and 'new materialism' with World Architecture Community at the reSITE 2016: Cities in Migration conference in Praque.  

Saskia Sassen is a Dutch-American sociologist and her researches and writings focus on analyses of globalization and international human migration. She is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and Centennial visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Sassen coined the term global city.

''These new migrations are an interesting event, they are telling us something about an emergent history. Here it is important to emphasize something that mostly is overlooked but has been central to my research on migration. It is the fact that the larger context within which migration flows emerge matters far more than is usually recognized –except in the case of war, and then we call these migrants ''refugees,'' Saskia Sassen told World Architecture Community.

''These new migrations are often far smaller than ongoing older migrations, but I think they represent the beginning of a whole new era: these are migrations that result from a massive loss of habitat,'' she added. ''This loss is due to climate change –notably desertification and flooding, the vast expansion of mining and plantation agriculture, the expansion of cities and the building of gated communities, water grabs, and ongoing pollution of land and water.''

Speaking to World Architecture Community at the reSITE 2016: Cities in Migration conference in Praque, Saskia Sassen also told about post-digital era affecting many uprisings in the streets-that occurred in many countries of the world. Several urban revolts in the streets not only occur because of new digital networkings, the street, of course, is the key vector for mobilizing, but this is just one vector of this complex mix of issues, according to Saskia Sassen.  

''But the world could move-in digitally, and this did matter, but perhaps not that much. It is basically urban space where it all comes together today, and this means major cities, where the proximity between power and powerlessness is real. (And it always amazes me that there is notmore mobilizing!). There are moments in history and in the development of economies when power and powerlessness occupy the same larger space, but they are only moments,'' said Sassen.

‘It was as if a monster had crawled into the city.’ Illustration © Hilary Koob-Sassen, courtesy of Saskia Sassen.

Prof. Saskia Sassen has three major completed projects that comprise her 20 years of research, Sassen starts with a thesis that posits the unexpected and the counterintuitive in order to cut through established ''truths.'' These projects engendered her three major books. In The Mobility of Labor and Capital (Cambridge University Press 1988), her thesis is that foreign investment in less developed countries can actually raise the likelihood of emigration if that investment goes to labor-intensive sectors and/or devastates the traditional economy. Her thesis went against established notions that such investment would retain potential emigrants.

In The Global City (Princeton University Press 1991; 2nd ed 2001) her thesis is that the global economy needs very specific territorial insertions, and that this need is sharpest in the case of highly globalized and digitized sectors such as finance. This went against established notions at the time that the global economy transcended territory and its associated regulatory umbrellas.

In the award-winning Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2006), her thesis is that today’s partial but foundational transformations, from economic to cultural and subjective, take place largely inside thick national settings and institutions. She conceptualizes these as denationalizing dynamics that operate alongside the more familiar globalizing dynamics. This denationalizing of what was historically constructed as national is more significant than much of the self-evidently global.

Her new book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Harvard University Press/Belknap 2014). It launches a fourth major research project. The organizing thesis is that our global modernity is marked by systemic expulsions of all sorts: we are beyond simply more inequality, more poverty, more refugees in the global south, and so on. And it is often our complex intermediary processes, requiring talent and knowledge, which are facilitating such expulsions.

Her current writing focuses on two projects. One is ''Ungoverned Territories'' (Harvard University Press), a second book that is part of this fourth major research phase. It seeks to capture the making of ambiguous jurisdictions that escape the grip of existing national and international institutions. The other is preparation the publication of her Storrs Lectures in Jurisprudence and Philosophy, delivered at the Yale University Law School in 2012.

Read the edited version of the transcript of the interview with Saskia Sassen below:

The monster’s plans? Illustration © Hilary Koob-Sassen, courtesy of Saskia Sassen.

Berrin Chatzi Chousein: Your focus on your researches and writings are based on 'local sources' or 'locality' that rereads the new paradigms and shifts of globalisation in the widest sense. What are the active inputs of the 'the local' in specific contexts allowing a social, or workable  globalization? I mean; even if there are many complex issues and problems that the communities, authorities face with, how does micro-level design strategies, approaches, working conditions turn into a global endeavor?

Saskia Sassen: Well, yes and no! It is the case indeed that I have become very interested in the level of the local, partly as one mode to contest the massive concentrations of power at the top (please see for instance both the story and the fairytale on this massive concentration of power though these articles; Who owns our cities – and why this urban takeover should concern us all, 'A monster crawls into the city' – an urban fairytale by Saskia Sassen, and Whose Paris? Who owns Paris?)

Thus, when I use the term ''let’s localize what we can localise'' or ''let’s start pulling components of ''the'' economy back down into our localities. I am indeed fighting this very strong trend towards the corporatizing of more and more parts of our economies that once were in the  hands of local shops. These local shops each was a sort of knowledge space: they knew what they had to order because it would sell in that neighborhood, they knew how to do the accounting and legal and insurance issues, they knew when new producst or better sources for old products were emerging. In short, they had the knowledge to run a shop and make it work. Today, they are all franchises. And that means that knowledge and a share of all profits leaves the locality and goes to headquarters which might be far away in another country. How can I avoid asking: Do we really need a multinational to get a copy of coffee nowadays?-not a good way to go.

Berrin Chatzi Chousein: How do latest territorial forces, migration problems, housing rights, conflicts, civil rights, urban revolts, new cultures, and powerlessness reflect the citizen’s self politic onto urban spaces as a new way of producing architecture?

Saskia Sassen: All of these have clearly become a major issue and a major challenge. Let me just focus on one aspect that has not received sufficient attention in the general commentary is the emergence of a new type of migrations –a new flow that will only grow and Europe will be a main destination. It is generated by what I refer to as a massive loss of habitat. It is due to some old and some new facts, but it is different from the familiar notion of the refugee and of the immigrant. In many ways it is a refugee of a certain type of economic development. I have developed this at length in a new article that might be of interest to some of your readers, which is called ''A Massive Loss of Habitat: New Drivers of Migrations''  in Sociology of Development, published in July 2016.

These new migrations are an interesting event. They are telling us something about an emergent history. Here it is important to emphasize something that mostly is overlooked but has been central to my research on migration. It is the fact that the larger context within which migration flows emerge matters far more than is usually recognized –except in the case of war, and then we call these migrants ''refugees.'' Most major migrations of the last two centuries, and often even earlier, can be shown to start at some point –they have beginnings, they are not simply there from the start.  In my recent work, I have focused on a particular set of new migrations that have emerged over the last two years or three years -and I am not including here the Asia war refugees.

These new migrations are often far smaller than ongoing older migrations, but I think they represent the beginning of a whole new era: these are migrations that result from a massive loss of habitat. This loss is due to climate change –notably desertification and flooding, the vast expansion of mining and plantation agriculture, the expansion of cities and the building of gated communities, water grabs, and ongoing pollution of land and water. In short, these are refugees of a sort –they are economic development refugees. They are not regular migrants, because there is no home to go back to—home is now a mine or a plantation, or such. And they are not recognized in law: they are not war refugees nor are they regular migrants.

Berrin Chatzi Chousein: We know that in the 21st first century, new architectural concerns, aesthetic capabilities of systemic thinking, heritage, social changes, environmental efficiencies, techno-cultural productions and new collective ways of thinking set up new relational analyses of digital materialism, presented as a new positivist epoch of process and data in new digital era. The new assignations of performance are so comprehensive and effective in an urban context that the reader or an author should reconsider new cultural assets and returns by setting up certain alternatives of dominant visions of the subject and self, to non-profit, collectivity, open source, which definitely underscores the new term "new materialism’’ for the humanist stance. But, could we say that the new digital era can be read as a new ‘anthropocene’ for creating new urban spaces? How would you describe the values of post-digital era maybe in terms of the posthuman theory? 

Saskia Sassen: Well, this is a complex issue. Let me give you an image of the city as a complex space moving across historical epochs, outliving kings and queens, powerful firms and major wars, leaving much death behind, but always emerging.

The city moving forward across the centuries.' Illustration © Hilary Koob-Sassen, courtesy of Saskia Sassen.

And now let me just develop one vector of this complex mix of issues. This one issue is my long time concern with how powerlessness can become complex—and thereby enable those without power or have voice, or make a history. 

One aspect that comes out of historical analyses is the importance of spatial proximity between oppressors and the oppressed to the viability of past uprisings/revolutions. One issue is the extent to which today there is afar more intermediation, often a radical separation of these two groups from one another in the 21st century. So digital networking tools are often seen as playing influential roles in the Syrian, Egyptian, and Turkish uprisings— they narrow the space of the divide between oppressors and oppressed. This is clearly a very partial role, since the street was the key vector for  mobilizing. The street was the core of these uprisings, not digital communication, see my piece on The Global Street: Making the Political.

But the world could move-in digitally, and this did matter, but perhaps not that much. It is basically urban space where it all comes together today, and this means major cities, where the proximity between power and powerlessness is real. (And it always amazes me that there is not more mobilizing!). There are moments in history and in the development of economies when power and powerlessness occupy the same larger space, but they are only moments.

Digital tech enters the picture of our present and future not via struggles for revindication. But, as taking us towards futures where the human condition is only a partial component. The cyborg is the emergent subject. This is a radically different condition from the social uprisings that mark our current period, where the digital makes connective tissue but does not function as a subject. It is a utility, so one of my projects is how do we open-source all localities in a city, as a way of making the knowledges of the disadvantaged, of children, of those we never get to hear from become part of the knowledge zone of a city. They know what the experts at the center do not know (please see my piece 'Open Sourcing The Neighborhood' published in Forbes in 2013).

Additionally, how can digital enable low-income neighbourhoods explained in my article titled 'Digitization And Work: Potentials and Challenges in Low-Wage Labor Markets.' 

The city becomes a critical space where there is an encounter, not so much between employer and employee, but between those who are actually separated by the vast divide between power and powerlessness. In a large messy city those without power get to make a history, a culture, a neighborhood economy. And they get to stand their ground and assert ''Estamos Presentes'', we do not ask anything from you, we are just letting you know that we are here, that this city is also our city. 

In these encounters much happens, including the making of an urban subject. I think a simple example is rush hour when all –cleaners, construction workers, fancy professionals, run to catch whatever it is-that is one moment of equality, and in that moment we are all urban subjects.

Berrin Chatzi Chousein: How do you evaluate informal architecture, or labor, conditions and accordingly a self-built economy that are not controlled or cared by some authotirites or the sate but which is shaped in many cities intrinsically?

Saskia Sassen: This is becoming a major issue. As we gather knowledge about urban conditions, we have come to understand to what extent much urban space, especially in the peripheries of major cities is ungoverned. By this, I mean that none of the systems are present –water suply, electricity, schools, public trasnport, hospitals, and such. In some cases it all more or less works out as for instance, grandmothers’ knowledge of plant medicine substitute the pills given by doctors, and private owned buses provide cheap but reliable transport. But the burden of making it all work lies heavily on the shoulders of already overburdened residents. There is a profound injustice here even as we must admire the ingenuity, the will to make it all work, of these residents. I think the peripheries of our large cities will become one of the markers of future urbanisms, the way the newly built high rise buildings of the early 1900s and onwards marked the emergence of the modern city.

Jonathan Wisner, summer slums, courtesy of Saskia Sassen

Top image: Saskia Sassen. Image courtesy of Clarin

Saskia Sassen was the keynote speaker in this year's reSITE: Cities in Migration conference, which held on June 16-17, 2016 at the Forum Karlin in Prague. Many sessions of the reSITE 2016 were featured in our Urban Development section. World Architecture Community was media partner for reSITE 2016, which aimed to bring innovative solutions and successful strategies for European and Western cities to come to terms painlessly with the influx of new residents. 

Carl Weisbrod, Chairman of the City Planning Commission of NYC, Professor Saskia Sassen, sociologist at Columbia University, and Michael Kimmelman, the Architecture Critic for The New York Times from New York City as well as a huge number of speakers from Germany, the famous landscape architect, Martin Rein-Cano from Topotek 1, Berlin, Mimi Hoang, co-founding Principal of nArchitects, were only a few of the speakers giving lecture at reSITE 2016.




  




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