The Capsule vs the Network

March 30, 2011

Lieven De Cauter writes in The Capsular and the Network that we are living in a world consisting of individual capsules which, because of their characteristics, perpetuate and accelerate ever more capsules. The basis of this view is that human beings are fragile (de Cauter going so far as to say “one of the most delicate creatures since the invention of evolution”) and because of this we create capsules to protect us from the outside. These capsules can be physical, such as architecture (the third skin) but can also be cultural constructs. Although “all civilizations have been ‘capsular’ ” De Cauter believes that when capsule scenarios self-perpetuate ever more capsules they are overly ‘reinforced” and thus we become “voluntary prisoners of architecture”. In this sense capsules justify their presence by creating more capsules, further validating their inherent power which occupants are then willing to submit to.

De Cauter believes contemporary (Western) society has accelerated further into “high intensity capsularization” because of an enormous increase in speed, both physical and informational. This increase creates a marginalized society of peoples who are not connected (or cannot connect) into this new high speed network. By defining the excluded the capsule strengthens its boundaries, and thus further excludes those outside. These repetitive circles, propagating more capsules, begin to turn the world into “an archipelago of insular identities”. This occurs at a large scale but also at that of the individual, where the rise in capitalism has resulted in the rise of individualism (and the subsequent loss of the welfare state). Further compounding this is the rise in biopolitics, where sovereign states can define who they are by excluding what they are not, and thus proportioning the ‘other’ with less rights. De Cauter concludes that these cycles continue and externalise control, with power stripped from the individual and residing in factors outside of their control.

Electric Aborigine, Bottery Project, David Greene 1969.

It is interesting however to challenge the theory that an initial capsule is vital for human survival. David Greene, a member of Archigram, advocated in a 1969 essay a “moratorium on buildings”, in essence an end to a reliance on capsules. Writing about an ‘electric aborigine’, Greene advocates instead for a greater reliance on the actual networks. He writes

“our architectures are the residue of a desire to secure ourselves to the surface of the planet…our anchors to the planet, like the aborigine’s, should be software, like songs or dreams, or myths. Abandon hardware, earth’s surface anchors.”

Instead of giving precedence to capsules foremost as nodes linked by a network it is possible to instead only rely on the network itself as ‘protector’. In this way the individual becomes “walking architecture” (Greene 1969). No longer de Cauter’s “sedentary nomads” the individual then has much greater flexibility. Greene argues further that with this greater flexibility comes greater power to challenge what de Cauter describes as the capsularized society –

“The more people who actively try being a social chameleon, the more chance they have of demonstrating the power of an alternative and weakening the power of a controlling system. to demonstrate the alternative means that if an alternative is recognized then it can be used as a lever, a tactic.”

Image and Text Source:

Archigram, Edited by Peter Cook, Warren Chalk, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron & Mike Webb, 1972 [reprinted New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999]

-Tim Brooks

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