Contour or Abyssal: The Future Ecology of Cities


[A talk I gave during the Philosophy of the City Conference held on November 6-7, 2015 at the University of Hongkong]



In his book on Francis Bacon,[1] Gilles Deleuze echoes Nietzsche’s well-known provocation that chaos is essential to existence, and yet as Deleuze argues, and will argue in his later works, it’s also important that its cultivation is adequate enough to avoid a suicidal collapse.[2] Bacon’s art, for Deleuze, is an example of this balancing act. And yet, what characterizes this balance in Bacon is his painterly technique which renders chaos imperceptible.[3]

For Deleuze, Bacon is quite superior to Paul Cezanne, in this respect, who limits his approach towards chaos to the “analogical [extension] of geometry”[4] where lines are still perceptible, despite the predominance of color over lines in his paintings, thereby producing a kind of experience based on sensations, according to the visual lineaments of the dynamic hand of chaos. From here, I would like to extend the notion of sensation produced by art to the modern notion of the city.


The City’s Default Perception Regime


We can think of the modern city as a regime of sensations which in turn gathers into a kind of ‘default perception regime’[5] as it penetrates deep and rather expansively into the life of the city.  We are not referring to the city as the Greeks or the Romans defined it, as a political space ‘made up of citizens,’[6] rather, as Ildefons Cerda, the socialist Spanish engineer, understood the city in the modern sense. In relation to the concept of the urban that Cerda introduced into the nomenclature of urban planning, the modern city is defined as “a vast swirling ocean of persons, of things, of interest of every sort, of a thousand diverse elements.”[7]  Cerda’s theory of urbanization is described as that in which, in order “to sustain the lives of inhabitants,”[8] these so-called ‘diverse elements’ must be able to “work in permanent reciprocity and thus form a totality … uncontainable by any previous … formations such as the old walled city.”[9]


Interestingly, the kind of ‘default perception regime’ that we have in the city today is one in which Deleuze in his examination of Bacon could have likened to the visual representation of the becoming imperceptible of chaos. Here, we may single out a correlation between art and the city in the sense that the becoming imperceptible of the city resonates in Deleuze’s theory of art inspired by Bacon: “a frenetic zone in which the hand is no longer guided by the eye and is forced upon sight like another will, which appears as chance, accident,” etc.[10] But if Cerda’s urban design aims to sustain life in the city based on mobility and networks, its most Deleuzean complement perhaps is in Deleuze and Guattari‘s functional definition of a concept: “[Infinite] through its survey or its speed but finite through its movement that traces the contour of its components.”[11]  In the final analysis, the aesthetic complement of the city can only serve as a relay onto a higher kind of composition in the form of concepts.


Deleuze argues that Bacon’s technique doesn’t embrace chaos for its own sake, that he makes chaos imperceptible by “[dismantling] the optical world]” but also, as the final act, “[reinjecting that world] into the visual whole.”[12] There, the aesthetic complement is relayed onto a much higher complement in terms of conceptual composition, which Deleuze and Guattari simply describe as “consistency.”[13]


The Cybernetic City


Incidentally, the Deleuzean idea of concept as infinite survey through speed is well integrated within a practice of appropriation of bodies, and their functional relation to the social whole, peculiar to modern cities. In the following annotation of one of Deleuze’s most important concepts, Cerda borrowed Deleuze’s notion of complex bodies (that Deleuze borrowed from Spinoza) in relation to his concept of the modern city:


A composite body … a combination of various bodies, is defined by its structure or by its internal relations …. [preserving] the body’s … relations of motion and rest and [maintaining] the body’s ability to be affected in a great number of ways.[14]


In like manner the city as a complex body preserves itself by maintaining its ability to be affected by other factors. In one of Guattari’s last works, these ‘other factors,’ in a sense also the ‘diverse elements’ in Cerda’s urban theory, would be the equivalent of the intersecting ecologies of the social, mental and environmental.[15] Altogether, the end goal is to preserve a composite body’s internal relations in order to avoid the “death sentence,”[16] a black hole,[17] which may be achieved, as in the case of contemporary appropriation of Cerda’s urban theory, by pursuing a kind of ecological redemption through urban planning.[18] It is in this light that Cerda, and Deleuze and Guattari share a common notion of complex bodies which complements their somewhat naturalistic concept of the modern city, and how complexity is to be cultivated to prevent collapse. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of complex bodies in the guise of desiring-machines (which I will discuss later) are exactly the kind of bodies that can flourish within Cerda’s urban ecology, based on a naturalized concept of the ‘urban’.[19]


The naturalization of the urban is simply the urbanization of nature that is said to be immanent in nature itself.[20] Here the idea of the ‘natural’ is meant to avert uncontrollable chaos, expressed in urban planning that doesn’t take into account this meta-principle, which authorizes instead a unity (or a reunified notion) of the rural and the urban,[21] in a sense, making diverse elements work in reciprocity. The urbanization of nature is directed at the countryside, but, as we have seen in Deleuze’s appropriation of Bacon, must be ‘reinjected into the visual whole,’ which means, for Cerda, to “ruralize the urban.”[22] This meta-principle of urban planning with the goal of preventing collapse is based on the idea that unhindered mobility and networking, through intelligent planning with the aid of modern technology, is essential to the consistency of human civilization.


Cerda’s meta-principle also includes adapting to chaos without losing consistency which resonates with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of complex bodies in terms of the concept of desiring-machines. In describing how complex bodies can maintain consistency, Deleuze and Guattari recommend continuous “plugging into other collective machines,” [23] and if need be, “[abandon] all reference,” which already implies a cybernetic approach, “so as to retain only the conjugations and connections that constitute [the bodies’] consistency.”[24] Today, this notion of plugging machines corresponds to the global wiring of consciousness, concentrated in the megapolises, the global cities of the world. It is in this light that the so-called internet of things[25] is strictly an urban phenomenon, transforming into a huge cybernetic space where desire lies at the foreground of  intermingling of cities, not to mention, the commodification of desire and fantasy on a global scale.[26]


For purposes of my paper, I mean desire, as with Deleuze and Guattari, as the idea of embracing speed, mobility and unrestricted creation but “without losing anything of the infinite.”[27] If Cerda’s meta-principle is enabled by an idea of urbanization “sprawling limitlessly across the earth,”[28] Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-machines are enabled by producing concepts by which they mean “absolute survey of surface or volume at infinite speed.”[29] In all likelihood this is what the city has done since transforming into a cybernetic space, perhaps, best illustrated in the following reflections by a contemporary urban designer, William Mitchell (who died in 2010):


Embedded within a vast structure of nested boundaries and ramifying networks, my muscular and skeletal, physiological, and nervous systems have been artificially augmented and expanded …. My biological body meshes with the city; the city itself has become not only the domain of my networked cognitive system, but also … the spatial and material embodiment of that system.[30]


In the following section, I will turn to introduce and navigate, albeit, briefly, due to our time restriction, F.W. J. Schelling’s philosophy of nature and how this philosophy contradicts the idea of consistency in the face of chaos, or the notion of a dead-end [31] that is most likely to befall on modern urban spaces in light of an imminent ecological collapse.


From Mesh to Abyss


Schelling in a sense is quite opposed to a Deleuzian type of consistency that we can also see in Cerda’s theory of urbanism in relation to nature. Whatever applies as consistent for Schelling always approaches the meaning of the abyss, the “dark ground of nature.”[32] Schelling expresses his anti-consistency thesis as follows:


Nature is an abyss of the past. This is what is oldest in nature, the deepest of what remains if everything accidental and everything that has become is removed. This is precisely that constant tendency to restrict [being] and to place it in darkness.[33]


Schelling places the abyss at the center of philosophical dispute, describing it as the only “bold word [that] could bring on [a] crisis.”[34]  He thinks that the major tendency of philosophy since Hegel is to deny this bold word, the “dark, prophetic word, [35] the abyss, which in itself “[contains] no interpretation.”[36] Ultimately, Schelling argues, philosophical speculation only reveals the extent to which humanity is a disposable species who will always be placed in darkness by the abyss that he himself interprets. Humanity is always placed in the ungrounding of its consistency, and the planet is the very place of this ungrounding.


In Schelling’s case, the city can only be tentative in the same context in which humanity is a tentative species. In his middle period, Schelling crafted a geophilosophy to emphasize this point, referring to the Earth as anterior to any kind of speculation. Iain Hamilton Grant, a Schelling scholar, tersely summarizes this Schellingian notion of the ‘anterior’ to get at this point: “Geology [is]… fatal to the eternity of the world, precisely because it … posits an anteriority even to the becoming of the planetary object.”[37] In contrast, philosophical speculation (of the type exemplified by Hegel who prioritizes the anthropic principle of human superiority over nature) takes by default the perception that there is no end to the world, hence, its resonance in the concept of eternal city “sprawling limitlessly across the earth.”[38] The colonization of Mars, for example, will be an extension of this eternity principle. 


In relation to the formation of the city, the geological play of the abyss that comes into the city’s composition on the surface is capable of revealing the non-centrality of the human that the ungrounding of geology reveals, time and again, such as, in case of earthquakes and other geological events, compounded by climate change, “long-term power outages, evacuations, containment failures, explosions, aftershocks,” [39] etc. Events like these tend to push the city to the brink of collapse in an age of rapid geological and climatic changes. Schelling’s emphasis on the ‘bold dark, prophetic word’ – the abyss – is a good reminder that, as the city undergoes accelerating progress, it is essential that once and for all, in the observation of one contemporary urban designer, “anticipating geologic scales of force, change and effect … [must become] a common [urban] design specification?”[40]




It is of interest to note here, as I conclude, that the standard view of pre-cybernetic antiquity in dealing with a crisis is to become the crisis itself. This is best illustrated in the metaphor of the ‘prison’ or a ‘trap’ in the sense of the ancient connotation of the many aspects of the Greek notion of apeiron:


Being without direction it cannot be crossed, is impassable, but at the same time, for those who find themselves in this place which in a sense is the opposite of organised space there is no way of ever escaping from it.[41]


Isn’t the modern city a projection of this ‘organized space’? What I mean here is the city is still a space from which you can escape, like the city is one place to become indiscernible, in terms of capital mobility, stocks exchange; like a multiple subject entering new sites of composition, at the infinite speed of finance algorithms; each time a new subject, a laundering subject; repurposed, reengineered; on the whole, what consistency means in a globalized world.


But in becoming the trap itself, like the ancient apeiron, the city may no longer escape from an imminent collapse, but may still save itself, albeit, paradoxically, not in terms of reinjecting itself in the visual whole, in the manner of Bacon’s paintings, for instance, as we discussed above, hoping for some kind of ecological redemption; rather, in terms of embracing the abyss in its capacity to unground the consistency of the species. Incidentally, in this light, scholars of Greek antiquity made mention of the use of the ‘net,’ pertinent as it is to the present condition of human existence in the age of cybernetics:


The net, ‘an endless mesh’ … can seize anything yet can be seized by nothing; its shape is as fluid as it can be, the most mobile and also the most baffling, that of the circle.[42]


In conclusion, I would like to think, at the risk of sounding too pessimist, that the modern city is increasingly becoming this very circle, like a trap from which there’s no possibility of escape. It makes sense to underscore here its resonance in the global slogan on climate change, such as ‘there’s no Planet B.’ In contrast, all modern attempts to organize the city have been in constant denial of the non-eternity of human consistency.





[1] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London and New York: Continuum, 2003).

[2] See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Vol. 2: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 161.

[3] Deleuze, Francis Bacon, p. 27.

[4] Ibid., p. 113; emphasis mine.

[5] I am extending the use of this concept popularized by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse in an anthology of essays they co-edited. See Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (eds.), Making the Geologic: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (Brooklyn, New York: Punctum Books, 2013).

[6] See Pier Vittorio Aureli, “Intangible and Concrete: Notes on Architecture and Abstraction,” e-flux journal, 64 (2015), Accessed Octobe4 1, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Deleuze, Francis Bacon, p. 137.

[11] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 21.

[12] Deleuze, Francis Bacon, p. 138; emphases mine.

[13] Deleuze and Guattari take consistency to mean “what the creation of concepts” is all about, that is, “to connect internal, inseparable components to the point of closure or saturation so that we can no longer add or withdraw a component without changing the nature of the concept; to connect the concept with another in such a way that the nature of other connections will change” (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh  Tomlinson and Graham Burchell [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994],p. 90.

[14] See Gillian Howie, Deleuze and the Aura of Expressionism (New York: Palgrave, 2002), p. 104; emphases mine.

[15] See Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. I. Pindar and P. Sutton (London and New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone Press, 2000).

[16] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 110.

[17] Ibid.

[18] See Ross Exo Adams,” Natura Urbans, Natura Urbanata: Ecological urbanism, circulation and the immunization of nature,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32 (2014): 12: 29 for the intricacies of Cerda’s theory of urbanism in light of contemporary ecological concerns.

[19] Ibid., p. 15.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 20.

[22] From the 1867 frontispiece of Ildefons Cerda’s ouvre General Theory of Urbanization. Quoted by Lion March, “Mathematics and Architecture since 1960,” in Architecture and Mathematics from Antiquity to the Future, Vol. II: The 1500s to the Future, edited by Kim Williams and Michael Ostwald (New York and London: Springer, 2015), pp. 559.

[23] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 161

[24] Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, p. 90; emphases added.

[25] By its definition, the internet of things (IoT) is a “foundation for connecting things, sensors, actuators, and other smart technologies, thus enabling person-to-object and object-to-object communications” (See B. Scholz-Reiter, “Foreword. The Internet of Things: Threats and Opportunities of Improved Visibility,” in Architecting the Internet of Things, edited by D. Uckelman, M. Harrison and F. Michahelles [London: Springer, 2011], iv-viii).

[26] See Alain Badiou, Logics of Words: Being and Event, 2, trans. Albert Toscano (New York and London: Continuum, 2009), p. 2.

[27] Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, p. 42.

[28] Adams, “Natura Urbans, Natura Urbanata,” p. 18.

[29] Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, p. 21.

[30] William J. Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The MIT Press, 2003), p. 19.

[31] Guattari, The Three Ecologies, p. 28.

[32] F. W. J. Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. J. Love and J. Schmidt (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 44.

[33] F. W. J. Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Jason M. Wirth (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000), p. 31.

[34] Schelling, Philosophical Investigations, p. 19.

[35] Ibid., 73.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Iain Hamilton Grant, “Mining Conditions: A Response to Harman,” in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (Melbourne, Australia:, 2011), p. 44; emphases mine.

[38] Adams, “Natura Urbans, Natura Urbanata,” p. 18.

[39] Jamie Kruse, “Power of Configuration: When Infrastructure Goes Off the Rail,” in Making the Geologic, p. 216.

[40] Ibid.; emphases mine.

[41]  See Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, trans. J. Lloyd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 294.

[42] Ibid., p. 42.

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