In Édouard Glissant’s essay, “Black Beach”, he refers to a solitary man who constantly paces up and down this Martinique beach at different speeds, never saying anything, but always adjusts his steps to the chaos—a metaphor for all of “the rhythm of the world that we consent to without be able to measure or control its course”; all of the commonplaces that produce a roar. For what could the walker on the beach say to get to the bottom of things, to make anything understood?
Leaving the essay, the man is no longer on the black beach, or rather walks the beach in the city, the city where I live, Jakarta. Here, landscape also shifts each day, often imperceptibly in the wear and tear of materials as they intersect, the wearing of building, road, wire, and the bearing materials have on each other in a constant struggle of orientation, of things impacting. Unlike the Martinique beach where swells, erosions and winds efface inscription, our walker in the city leaves an array of signs—scrapings, marks, patterns of debris, spray paint, smears of blood, scrawls. Neither their permanence nor impermanence is guaranteed, or subject to specific probabilities. Each may make some reference to the other, each may be different, point to different inclinations or readings, but there is no way to tell for sure.
There is no underlying concept or motivation that posits them as dissimilar; our walker may be repeatedly conveying the same message or none at all. Repetition does not necessarily differentiate, nor does it form any unyielding pattern. In the volatility of cities, repeating the same form or mark cannot be expected to indicate the same condition or sentiment. The sense of difference is washed away, and this allows our walker to keep marking, to keep remarking on his efforts to get or lose his bearings.
Remarking would seem to link the different surfaces that come to bear the marks. But there is nothing in the marks themselves that indicate a story line. Walkers sometimes tend to assume that they are being followed and cover their tracks; the impetus to convey, to inform and to deceive can be equally present. As a result, the contingency of any mark is intensified; it has to deal with many different things at once; it enfolds stealth and publicity, signature and anonymity; it says something about the specific place where it appears and something completely removed from it. Any effort to zero in on what the mark is simply reiterates that it could be something else or nothing at all.
The technical operations of cities today are engineered in ways that attempt to continuously and more precisely survey what is taking place From roads, cables, pipes, engines, computer chips, phone towers, machines, fiber optics, pumps, generators, wires, gas, and the vehicles, bodies, instruments, and structures that direct, enclose, and expose them, and the calculations and powers that diagram their intersections, the capacities of persons and things are held, at least momentarily, to be viewed and further shaped.
These operations have been extended to elaborate ways of “seeing in advance”—of preempting dangerous activities through being able to recognize the incipient forms of danger, through prior scanning of and algorithmic calculation of behaviors across a wide range of times and contexts. So much production has been oriented toward making things visible and calculable—from cellular, military, information, and nanotechnologies—that technical operations are more and more associated with a determinant function. They exist to pin things down, to enforce cascading connections among diverse matters, and to reveal essential truths. Even more, the logic of preemption takes away the opportunity of individuals and groups to negotiate and contest the meaning of so-called truths.
On the other hand, Jakarta is a city whose marks and remarking are continuously altered or renewed in ways that can not only be experienced and interpreted in terms of many different probable futures, depending on the “supplemental tools” available to read them more clearly, but which simultaneously exist within the improbability of any definitive outcome. The city need not be anything for sure, and all the measures of income, life expectancy, resident opinion surveys or infrastructure assessment do not tell us what a particular district does, or what kind of mark it leaves.
Citizens, experts, outsiders can say all they want about how this or that part of the city is unhealthy, unproductive, overly crowded, or falling apart, but whatever is taking place takes place because people and things bear down on each other, avoid each other, or simply do what they do in their own separate worlds. The taking in, acting on, seeking out, going around leaves it marks, and it is never clear how distant or how close those marks may be too each other; there is nothing in the passage of time or the characteristics of the location itself that can help us figure out an orientation for sure.
Where the unintelligibility of the terrain may prompt political decisions in order to “make things clear,” the realities of this improbable existence push back to make the politics of deciding things-as-certain more uncertain. Of course districts such as these can be bulldozed out of existence, but in most cases they engender a certain wariness in those inclined to moved too definitively against them or to control them.
Navigating, selling, transacting, fixing, redoing, chatting, transporting, buying, watching, avoiding, greeting, driving, building, gathering, dispersing—all of these are technical operations. They elaborate an urban environment whose reverberations of diverse, intersecting matters—agendas, concerns, activities, calculations, affective intensities, and compositions—make it difficult for any single set of actors to unilaterally restructure the textures and uses of that environment. Whether property developers, municipal governments, finance capital, or mafias, the illegibility of such environments makes it difficult for any single actor to confidently assess the implications of their “moves” in relationship to it.
This production of the unintelligible is no absolute guarantee against debilitating interventions. Yet, across many cities of the world, it space and a time in which to rethink a range of possible futures; to build upon the resourcefulness potentially immanent in the wide ranging interactions of diverse people and materials within them, as well as to rework the relationships of these spaces with a larger domain of transactions across unruly worlds.