Editor’s Note: The Politics of Murmur
by Stefano Serafini
Editor in Chief, International Society of Biourbanism, Italy
The making of an independent journal requires an amount of freedom (first of all in the form of time), which is becoming increasingly scarce. This issue was supposed to come out one year ago to propose a reflection on the experience of the fourth Biourbanism summer school, held in Artena, Italy from July 13–20, 2019, where brilliant minds such as Marwa al-Sabouni and Sergio Los contributed. A communication on the International Society of Biourbanism website (“Toward a home of language”, 2019) and a few, sparse, private exchanges among some of the participants occurred instead. The quested “home of language”—in a world where both the concepts of home and reciprocal understanding are precipitously fading away—showed again to be made rather of silence. At the same time, though, it felt like meaning needed to seep deep underground to escape the drought that exterminates the woods of words we once used (or believed) to inhabit.
The end of the famous dystopian novel, Farhenheit 451, has a group of clandestines, mostly former scholars, hiding in the woods. By memorizing entire pieces of literature, philosophy, or poetry, they cultivate another woods, made of words, inside themselves. In fact, the urban civilization they had escaped from burns every book and condemns to death those who try to keep and preserve even just a bunch of printed paper leaves. The city drive imagined by Bradbury is made of consumption, dizziness, and solitude. People interact with screens (“the parlor”) rather than with other humans, and every talk they have is utilitarian and deaf. Conformism permeates society. Control is everywhere. Nobody understands nor is interested in understanding anybody else for the last words, in a way, have been told already once and for all. The novel ends with the logical consequence of such a state of affairs: the urban civilization of consumption destroys itself deploying a quick and technologically efficient war. Only the rebels in the woods survive. They had seen the war coming; it is no surprise to them. They knew that the end of the city was only a matter of time. The people of the forest have somehow put aside their individualities by becoming carriers of meaning, which transcends its record or means of transmission: “We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it’s here” (Bradbury, 1953, p. 145). They are aware that the essence of any word is the entire discourse these words contribute to bring to life. The entire woods speaks through the murmur of each leaf and, as precious as it may be, no single leaf can express the whole and terribly real meaning spoken by the woods.
My grandfather (…) hoped that some day our cities would open up and let the green and the land and the wilderness in more, to remind people that we’re allotted a little space on earth and that we survive in that wilderness that can take back what it has given, as easily as blowing its breath on us or sending the sea to tell us we are not so big. When we forget how close the wilderness is in the night, my grandpa said, some day it will come in and get us, for we will have forgotten how terrible and real it can be. (Ibidem, p. 150)
We continuously forget the silence from which design should flow, and that it is so much bigger than we and our projects are: “…this special silence that was concerned with all of the world” (Ibidem, p. 139). In fact, we can only envision the positive, uttered side of things and actions. This puts us in a condition of subalternity to the current “urban civilization,” if we want to keep Bradbury’s metaphor going, which only can design to dominate.
Therefore, coming to this issue of the Journal of Biourbanism, I wonder: can agro-tourism really support the rurality of Nigeria against the noisy expansion of the city that comes with sewage, services, and drug consumption? Are we really protecting and bettering our cities when we try to patch them with our forestry, biourbanism, and biophilic design? Are our protests against the monstruosity of Amazon urbanism making a substantial difference?
In brief, we need uttered words, explained political alternatives, and well-illustrated projects. However, these come to light as signs of a system of measurement and control, “nature made audible in its estrangement” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002, p. 31), “equivalence” that “makes dissimilar things comparable” (Ibidem, p. 4). This is all fuel for the thanatic, unstoppable dialectic that twists every resistance strategies into its all-devouring counter-strategy. Words and actions establish moments of truth. Yet, immediately after, they become interface and a point of leverage for the stupidity of power, which is one reason Christopher Alexander fought against the concept of planning and design his entire life. This caveat is especially valid for those who look for a way out into the forest: “Nature, in being presented by society’s control mechanism as the healing antithesis of society, is itself absorbed into that incurable society and sold off” (Ibidem, 2002, p. 119).
My question is about the ever-growing environment of radiant ideas we inhabit. This imaginary environment has been built by systematically exterminating any trace of darkness and woods, and it is the model of our deaf material urban civilization of consumption and utilitarianism, which frantically flies from the encounter with death and, hence, life.
Enlightenment’s mythic terror springs from a horror of myth. It detects myth not only in semantically unclarified concepts and words, as linguistic criticism imagines, but in any human utterance which has no place in the functional context of self-preservation (Ibidem, p. 22).
We will be unable to leave behind the dead city if we do not get rid of the word that is hollowed to become domination. We will not succeed in reentering the woods without renovating our own, common intentionality. We need to act and design not with words nor silence—trying to let biourbanism be a politics of murmur.
Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical fragments. (Trans. E. Jephcott). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bradbury, R. (1953). Farhenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books.
Original painting by Anca Mihaela Negrii (2019). Courtesy of Sara Bissen and Stefano Serafini.
Serafini, S. (2020). Editor’s Note. Journal of Biourbanism, 8(1/2019), 9−10.