---- by Richard G. Smith
  While a great deal has been written about architecture by poststructuralists such as Derrida, relatively little has been written about cities and urbanism. This is also true in the writings of Baudrillard, who - with the exception of a section of text in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993a [1976]), a few paragraphs in The Consumer Society (1998a [1970]) and Simulacra and Simulation (1994a [1981]), and reflections on visits to cities such as Istanbul (Baudrillard, 2001), New York, Los Angeles (A) and Las Vegas (CM2) - has said remarkably little about cities or urban issues per se when compared to his numerous writings on architecture (SA; Proto, 2006).
  Baudrillard's lack of specific attention to the urban world - what he has written tends to be highly fragmented and undeveloped - is perhaps more notable given three strong urban influences in his early academic career. First, a close friend of his was Roland Barthes who wrote an urban semiology of Tokyo and outlined a broad framework for the development of an urban semiological approach. Second, his doctoral supervisor was Henri Lefebvre who was one of France's most influential urban thinkers. Third, he was on the directorial committee of Utopie, a journal that was in part a forum for debate about the format of the urban landscape. Nevertheless, while Baudrillard did not focus on writing about cities in a sustained manner, what he did write (SED, CS) is highly original as he extends his theorisation of the political economy of the sign to conceptualise cities as zones dominated by signs, media and the code.
  The city is made in the image of the political economy of the sign. Thus, urban space is coded to be dominated by signs, media and advertising so that the system reproduces 'itself not only economically and spatially, but also in depth by the ramifications of signs and codes, by the symbolic destruction of social relations' (SED, 77). For Baudrillard, the city - the space of the code - is now the model of socialisation, an operational semiology, as 'multiple codes assign a determinate space-time to every act and instant of everyday life' (SED, 77). The layout and life of cities are, says Baudrillard, dominated by simulation models so that everyone, all social relations, are commutable within a combinatorial urban matrix.
  To resist the homogeneity and differential logic of the city what is needed, says Baudrillard, is a 'reversion of the code according to its own logic, on its own terrain' (SED, 78), hence Baudrillard focuses on graffiti as an insurrection of signs against an urban political economy of the sign: empty signs against full signs. According to Baudrillard the outbreak of graffiti across New York City in the spring of 1972 (across its trucks, walls, subway trains, buses, elevators and so on) was not mindless vandalism, but rather a form of symbolic riot, a guerrilla action against the terror of the code 'where all sociality is invested, covered and dismantled by signs' (SED, 77). Thus Baudrillard contends that graffiti represents 'a new type of intervention in the city', a reaction and form of retaliation against the hyper-real city that is produced by the political economy of the sign.
  Baudrillard argues that the strength of graffiti is that it operates at the level of the signifier, avoiding every reference and origin, so turning the city into a body: 'graffiti turns the city's walls and corners, the subway's cars and the buses, into a body, a body without beginning or end' (SED, 82). In other words, graffiti is an act that runs counter to the dominant process whereby general political economy is always turning the 'urban body' into an 'urban organism'. That is to say that graffiti runs against the way in which, through political economy, the 'urban body' (alive with living social relations and symbolic exchange) is always being dissected and differentiated into functional organised zones, 'branded with functions and institutions' (SED, 82), to become an 'urban organism' whose meaning can be entirely reduced to the structure that accounts for it.
  The contemporary city is destructive of social relations and symbolic exchange because it is cast in the image of the political economy of the sign to be no more than a 'cut-up space of distinctive signs' (SED, 77). However, the orgy of graffiti scrawled across New York in the early 1970s upset the urban political economy of the sign because it was empty of content and had no message. Neither political or pornographic, the strength of the New York graffiti was that it consisted of names (and variations on names) from comic books, and so escaped the principle of signification: 'SUPERBEE SPIX COLA 139 KOOL GUY CRAZY CROSS 136 means nothing, it is not even a proper name, but a symbolic matriculation number whose function it is to derail the common system of designations' (SED, 78). Thus, for Baudrillard, graffiti is politically significant as with no meaning or message it contests what is now the real strategic terrain: 'the total manipulation of codes and significations' (SED, 80).
   § architecture
   § code
   § hyper-reality
   § model
   § semiotics
   § sign
   § simulation
   § Utopie

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.


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