Gentrification and Orality

One of the curious features of the so-called “urban renewal” taking place in the United States is the insistence of two new master-signifiers: gentrification and sustainability.

In Paris, where I have lived for the last nine years, neither of these terms have imposed itself on general discourse as they have in the United States. Although the process of gentrification exists, it does not capture the imagination of those who witness, participate in, or are displaced because of it. It would appear that in France, “gentrification” is considered an inevitable feature of the ebb and flow of city life. Likewise with “sustainability”, which is not seen as a magical master-signifier leading the way forward towards the perfect form of social organization, but rather as something that is simply preferable to its alternatives. In other words, these two concepts, although they exist in France and in French, have not inspired the same fetishization that they have in the United States.

Let us first address the question of gentrification. Gentrification, as explored, for example, in Richard Campanella’s article on the post-Katrina metamorphosis of New Orleans, refers to the irruption of a new form of social organization. We must not, however, content ourselves with a simple description of the process by which succeeding demographic waves transform a city from, essentially, poor and black to rich and white. We must rather focus our attention on the new meta-phenomenon of the fascination with this process on the part of those who are its agents.

Cities change. Rich areas go to seed. Poor areas get rich again. Such is the cycle of city life. What is happening now is different. If so many people are interested in gentrification as such, if this process suddenly needs a word, it is because this word refers to what might be referred to as a symptom in all of its dignity and not simply a background peristaltic process. Speaking broadly, what distinguishes a symptom from a simple conflict is that the symptom incarnates the dialectical process as such. Like the eye of the storm on Jupiter that roams across the surface of the planet without ever resolving itself, the symptom is that nodal point in the dialectical process where the irreducible ontological kernel of conflict manifests itself.

Of what, then, is gentrification a symptom? Gentrification is a symptom of the passage from the social form of a World proper to the form of a non-world. A world is a consistent society ruled by a differential symbolic logic in which every member of the society occupies a fixed place in relation to the father at the center, who embodies and quarantines Difference as such. A world is a legible whole with a specific shape. A non-world has no shape, is a refusal of shape as such.

Gentrification has thus gone from a banal process to an object of fascination because we sense that there is something irreversible and properly Historical about what is happening to cities today. It is not just that poor areas are become rich; it is nothing less than a particular relationship with the Real that is being lost.

Let us allow Campanella to describe the process:

The frontiers of gentrification are “pioneered” by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with—forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) “gutter punks” (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.

On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.

Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) “bourgeois bohemians,” to use David Brooks’ term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (…)

After the area attains full-blown “revived” status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.

The Freudian technique consists in focusing on that which has been left out of the “official” story and recognizing it as the thread that, once pulled, unravels the official story as such and reveals something unexpected about the dialectical/analytical process.

Following this Freudian spirit, I would here like to turn away from a frontal analysis of gentrification and focus rather on what, at first glance, appears to be a contingent and secondary phenomenological detail of the gentrification process. Let us once again allow Campanella to speak:


Gentrifiers seem to stew in irreconcilable philosophical disequilibrium. Fortunately, they’ve created plenty of nice spaces to stew in. Bywater [a gentrifying neighborhood in New Orleans] in the past few years has seen the opening of nearly ten retro-chic foodie/locavore-type restaurants, two new art-loft colonies, guerrilla galleries and performance spaces on grungy St. Claude Avenue, a “healing center” (…) yoga studios, a vinyl records store, and a smattering of coffee shops where one can overhear conversations about bioswales, tactical urbanism, the klezmer music scene, and every conceivable permutation of “sustainability” and “resilience.”

They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People”.

Indeed, the entire scene in the new Bywater eateries—from the artisanal food on the menus to the statement art on the walls to the progressive worldview of the patrons—can be picked up and dropped seamlessly into Austin, Burlington, Portland, or Brooklyn.

What I wish to highlight here is the strange way that food insists as a privileged symbol of the gentrifying process as such.

My thesis is that this is not a coincidence. It is a psychoanalytic commonplace to oppose orality to genitality. The former describes a regressive relationship to the object, one based on the infant’s relationship with the maternal breast, in which the fact that the object is attached to a subject is repressed. The oral mode of interacting with the object, like the anal mode, is a mode in which the object is dirempted from the subject bearing it.

One of the lessons of Lacan’s insight that the object is “extimate” is that subjectivity exists both inside and outside of us. Orality is a mode of relationship with the Other in which the denial of the Other’s subjectivity goes hand in hand with a denial of one’s own subjectivity. Genitality, the chimera of so many utopian post-Freudian schools, must nonetheless not be completely dismissed as a pure illusion. We must simply see it as another word for Becoming and not a fixed form of Being. Genitality might be considered a mode of relationship with the object in which its impossible resorption into the field of the Other is recognized. Is this not another way of distinguishing the jouissance of the symptom (organized around a fantasy of appropriating the object) from surplus-jouissance, which is generated by the circular motion around the object, one which thus presupposes its impossibility?

The “new” orality on display in the gentrified neighborhoods must be considered a manifestation of a radically different relationship with the object and with jouissance, one that illustrates the ideological constellation behind gentrification.

To return to one of the theses stated in our introduction, the non-world is a place in which difference is no longer coagulated into a Father but rather circulates and reproduces itself at the cellular level. Is this not another way of describing consumerism as opposed to previous forms of capitalism which might be described as “producerism”? A gentrified neighborhood is one that is organized around the consumption of jouissance, not the production of jouissance for the master. The nodal points of a world are those points at which jouissance is produced and laid at the feet of the master.

It is no coincidence either that the choicest sites for gentification are precisely those sites, like abandoned factories, which once served a production role and can now be turned into sites of consumption. The gentrification process is thus a process of cannibalization in which the remnants of the object, the leftover bones of the master, are consumed. In Totem and Taboo, Freud discusses the magical signification of consumption: by consuming the Father we acquire his strength; we literally put him inside of us. The gentrification process is thus something akin to the grinding up and eating of fossilized dinosaur bones in China: the remnants of a Real World in which there existed a Real Master are eaten because we have no other way of existing for the dead Master.

Once the confrontation with Difference has been endlessly deferred – in other words, once genitality, with its inevitable confrontation with the terrifying castration of the Other, has been refused — jouissance can only be procured in a regressive, symptomatic mode that maintains the twin illusions that the uncastrated Other exists and that we can approach this Other without having to suffer castration ourselves.

Campanella highlights two other features of the gentrified non-world: first, that there are no children there, and second, that those who live there are fascinated with all forms of sustainability. These two clinical observations as well are connected.

First of all, the putative explanations for the obsession with sustainability (ecology, social justice), although perfectly plausible, must be dismissed as post hoc alibis that ignore the libidinal investment in this master-signifier. What is sustainability if not the dream of a post-sexual world? A “sustainable” ecosystem is one that reproduces itself perfectly and eternally without ever encountering an Other. A sustainable world is one in which reproduction takes place through parthenogenesis and not through sex, through a sexual confrontation with an Other who is, by definition, radically Different. No surprise, then, that a gentrified city is one in which there are no children!

The dream of sustainability is the dream of a life in which difference, by being ground up into tiny pieces, can be invisibly admixed to one’s food and consumed like vitamins, in order that one may never have to realize that one is eating them. And what type of food do the gentrifiers eat? Campanella’s subtitle, Locavores in a Kiddie Wilderness, says it all. They eat local food, preferably organic food, and here the gentrifiers show a certain degree of obsessionality in their global perversion: the ultimate fantasy behind eating local, organic food is the fantasy of reducing the cycle of eating and eliminating waste to its smallest possible circuit – in other words, the fantasy of eating one’s own waste. As Levi-Strauss illustrates so beautifully in Tristes Tropiques, the fantasy here is fundamentally morbid and consists essentially in a refusal of existence on the concrete level, a refusal of the concrete as such. We might call this refusal to engage with the concreteness of existence by its more familiar name: puritanism, with its hidden coprophagic fantasies.

A scene that has begun recurring with more and more frequency recently, to the point where it has become a phenomenon worthy of being documented in the New York Times (“Restaurants Turn Camera-Shy”, Helene Stapinksi, New York Times, January 22, 2013), might serve as an image of the particularly sterile form of sexual rapport typical of the non-world: a group of diners taking out their smartphones and photographing their meal before eating it. We see here the transformation of an already-pasteurized object of jouissance into an even less immediate object: a photograph. We have here an attempt to fuse with the object that is simultaneously an attempt to keep it at the greatest possible distance (which is a good way to render Lacan’s paradoxical “il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel”). When we see someone photographing their food, we can imagine someone who first dissociates the breast from the (m)Other in order to pre-transform it into the fecal object that it will become in a few days (does not a plate of glistening curry photographed directly from above immediately evoke the perspective from which we contemplate the contents of the toilet bowl)? In this way the floating moment of subjectivization between ingestion and expulsion is negated before it can even occur. Finally, the isolated, fecalized breast is divorced from its very corporeality by reducing it to an abstract image that is then lodged in the Other of the blogosphere, where it can communicate with other blogs (“the signifier represents the subject for another signifier”). This is the way the residents of the non-world fuck.

Do we have a choice here? Is it possible for cities to evolve differently? No. Those who attempt to reinject some avatar of difference/authenticity into the process are what Lacan called non-dupes. This is the new world. The old signifiers of difference and authenticity no longer function as such once they are exposed to the logic of the non-world. The cunning of reason is implacable. They cannot be rehabilitated, and any attempt to do so only falls into its dialectical truth, that of simulacrum.

Let us rather try to enjoy our sexless organic brunch as much as we can and keep Heidegger’s words in mind:

Philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world. This is not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare a sort of readiness, through thinking and poetizing, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god in the time of foundering; for in the face of the god who is absent, we founder.





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