Consider the following exchange from the infamous press conference conducted by the President of the United States in the lobby of his fading, brassy New York tower on 15 August 2017, three days after the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful counterprotestor at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, who was murdered, allegedly, by a Nazi sympathizer:
Reporter: Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?
President: All of those people—excuse me—I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.
So—excuse me—and you take a look at some of the groups and you see and you would know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you are not. But, many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
But they were there to protest—excuse me—you take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. Infrastructure question. Go ahead.
Reporter: Does the statue of Robert E. Lee stay up?1
After a parodic few minutes of trying to promote the deregulation of infrastructural development, a sitting United States president publicly defended those who chose to join a torchlit white supremacist march in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The march, which was adorned by swastikas and Ku Klux Klan heraldry, became the setting for deadly political violence aimed at counterprotestors, including Heyer, the next day. Out of context, the response to the request for an “infrastructure question” may seem surreal: “Does the statue of Robert E. Lee stay up?” But it is not. Indirectly, questions on matters far more urgent than the rebuilding of highways showed how the taking down of statues relates to what we can call the “infrastructure question.”
Slavery was integral to the social and economic infrastructure of Robert E. Lee’s Confederacy, and the rebellion he led sought to make it the law of the land. Today, the worldwide “infrastructure question” is the question of climate change. Two months earlier, America’s self-regarding sovereign spitefully announced the country’s formal withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate accords, saying, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Never mind that Hillary Clinton had carried Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, by over fifteen percentage points, or that the city’s Democratic mayor, William Peduto, traveled to Paris to demonstrate his support for the agreement. The point, clear enough to the speaker’s intended audience, was that international agreements to limit climate change, and the clean energy measures they entailed, were for effete European elites, while coal and oil were for factory-hardened Pittsburgh Steelers, the name of the city’s (American) football team that refers to its once-leading industry. “America first,” the slogan goes. The adjectives “white” and “male” need not be added for the meaning to be clear.
Bypassing the underlying cultural politics, numerous commentators pointed out that Perduto, along with dozens of other mayors across the country, thereupon redoubled his city’s commitment to the principles of Paris. Pittsburgh, they said, was “going green.” For some time, the city has been seen as a kind of anti-Detroit, an avatar of renewal where the devastation of deindustrialization gave way, eventually, to postindustrial semi-prosperity. This came after two stage-managed “rebirths” in the 1960s and 1980s (officially named “Renaissance” and “Renaissance II”), which brought pedestrianized shopping, a crystalline, energy-efficient headquarters designed by former Nazi sympathizer Philip Johnson for Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG), and austerity for the city’s African-American and white working class populations.
The initiative amongst mayors and other local officials to lead on climate change mitigation, clean energy, and “green” jobs is politically and historically crucial.2 But, as with a cultural politics that pits urban voters against rural or suburban ones, or elite cosmopolitans against the rest, its symbolism rests on a transparent falsehood. Namely, that city and countryside, or urban and rural, can be cognitively and materially separated; that “urban” values and lifestyles, and—much more to the point in a “postindustrial” milieu—new, sustainable “urban” modes of production and consumption, can be upheld as paragons of virtue over and against the baser habits of their suburban-rural or industrial-agricultural counterparts. For the carbon economy is industrial and postindustrial, or urban, suburban, and rural, all at once. For example, a recent, exhaustive study by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes confirmed that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil for decades knowingly “misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications” by misrepresenting the findings of their own scientists, or knowledge workers, in order to protect the value of its industrial assets, including oil still in the ground.3 This fossil-fueled intervention in an international politics of knowledge, which began in the 1970s, also marks an inflection point now long past, after which anthropogenic climate change could no longer be defended as inadvertent. It was now deliberate.
Recently, The American Prospect, the progressive publication to which the departed White House propaganda “strategist” Stephen Bannon famously vented his white nationalist (euphemism: economic nationalist) frustrations with establishment Republicans, ran an article on “The Pittsburgh Conundrum.”4 The article’s author, John Russo, pointed out that contrary to the myth of an urban knowledge economy rushing in to fill the economic void left behind by vanished factories and mills and bringing entire regions with it, “studies make clear that poverty has grown most rapidly in suburban areas.” To a significant degree in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the deindustrialized American Northeast, this accounts for blue-red, urban-suburban voting patterns, and with some modification it can be extrapolated into similar patterns worldwide. But it does not fully explain the implied Pittsburgh versus Paris antagonism.
By the 1920s, when the Nazi terror first began to stir, Paris was already seen as what the cultural critic Walter Benjamin called the “capital of the nineteenth century.” A hundred years later, New York, the city of the presidential tower, has arguably followed suit as the “capital of the twentieth century.” Much of the steel that built New York’s skyscrapers was milled in Pittsburgh and thereabouts (though the presidential tower is framed in concrete). Equally important, much of the carbon now clogging the Earth’s atmosphere was released by the furnaces out of which industrialists with names like Carnegie, Mellon, and Rockefeller made their fortunes. In other words, like “Paris” before it, “Pittsburgh” is another name for the historical responsibility borne by industrialized nations for the current planetary crisis.
Among the achievements and scandals of modernity to which both Paris and Pittsburgh gave their signature was the conversion of an abstract population known as a “mass” (as in “mass production”) into an imagined community known as a “people.” It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the twentieth century United States, an imagined “we” abstracted from “We the People” was mass-produced in Hollywood dream factories, Madison Avenue advertising salons, and suburban Levittown living rooms.
Among the most common sites for the visualization of this twentieth century mass-as-people was the political rally. One of the phenomenon’s keenest architectural interpreters, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, intuited this when he collaged multiple copies of an image from the 1952 Republican national convention, at which the crowd rallied for presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower, into a model photograph of his proposed Chicago convention center with an American flag draped conspicuously over the massive open space. The message was clear: modern architecture could help expunge the living nightmare of National Socialism, with its torchlit rallies and its swastikas, by reconstituting the mass as a democratic body in the rational, technologically emancipated light of day. This democratic-capitalist body was to be made in an America where, as Eisenhower’s secretary of defense would later suggest in a slogan that could just as easily apply to ExxonMobil today, what was good for General Motors was good for the country.
All of this occurred in a cultural environment organized by the “mass” media. So it is not surprising that the political rallies regularly staged by the current American president feature vituperative, but also transparently self-referential, attacks on “the dishonest media” or “fake news.” An important difference being that the mass media, exemplified in midcentury America by the Hollywood studios and by network television, have by now fragmented into a thousand different market segments, yielding a landscape dominated by corporate brands like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, each with its own slice of the political spectrum, a landscape that is predictably disrupted by only apparently anti-corporate startups like Breitbart.
Responsibility for this state of affairs is often assigned to the tautologically named “social” media. All media are social, and if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the rest share a distinguishing characteristic, it is the pixellation of society into an aerosol of internally differentiated individuals with multiple names and addresses, some if not all of which are fictional. It makes little sense to emulate the online marketers and try to pin down the “likes” and “dislikes” of these media-made individuals; more important is to understand how they—we—work. Social media reorganize time and attention to favor instantaneous reaction and constant preparedness for the next message, which crowds out reflective thought and the time required to respond in a considered, and perhaps unanticipated, fashion. In this respect, the carefully planned mass rally is an anachronism, albeit a powerful one, for it only serves to reenact the performances of spontaneity that circulate online in a variety of formats. Today, the main function of the rally and other mass media formats is the scripted performance of unscriptedness, which is why the American president’s off-the-cuff defense of white supremacists in the lobby of his New York tower bears unnerving comparison to the game of nuclear chicken he has played with North Korea on Twitter.
In contrast, one of the defining features of climate change is that it happens slowly, almost invisibly, and in one way or another but very differently, to everyone. It therefore makes little sense to speak of either factory-made masses or media-made individuals when we are speaking of human involvement in sea level rise, systemic drought, or extreme weather patterns, since these processes arise from and affect an indeterminate number of persons in an unbounded array of places, unequally. A related mistake is the tendency to oppose “clean” (or “green”) postindustrial life to “dirty” industrial life, a tendency visible in countless architectural renderings—postindustrial descendants of Mies’s collage—now circulating in the worldwide image sphere. Visually “greening” the LEED-certified environmentalist consensus (or “Paris”) rather than acknowledging and addressing the wider disparities of which it is only a trace plays into the Pittsburgh-versus-Paris line by masking the fact that the planet is today more industrialized than ever. At the scale of the world economic system, cities like Pittsburgh have, in effect, merely outsourced their carbon footprints to industrial regions in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, which have, in turn, increasingly turned to sub-Saharan Africa for both material and human resources to keep the engine rooms of capitalist development going.
This accounts for the very serious and very real geopolitical tensions underlying even the relatively modest goals of the Paris accords, wherein the North (Pittsburgh-Paris) has resisted making environmental reparations while expecting the postcolonial “global” South to bear a good deal of the economic burden of climate change mitigation. This scenario is repeated in microcosm and in reverse in the American context, where formerly carbon-intensive regions like rural Pennsylvania’s “coal country,” which fired Pittsburgh’s plants but has since been bypassed by a city-centric “knowledge economy,” have paid the heaviest price for deindustrialization. Such interrelationships and co-dependencies make it that much more nonsensical to speak of “urban” versus “rural” (or even “suburban”) lifeworlds, especially in the Anthropocene, when the geography of carbon respects no such distinctions.
This is not the hegemony of a single nation-state per se, wherein China (or “Beijing,” or “Shanghai,” or…) emerges as the dominant power in a post-Pittsburgh world. Nor is it a strictly cultural hegemony, as in the role played by the mass media in standardizing cultural formats under capitalist globalization. Nor is it entirely a hegemony of the imagination, wherein the contradictory desires of the “white (male) working class” rise to take their vengeance. It is the spatial hegemony of Pittsburgh-Paris itself, an infrastructural hegemony of walls, borders, zones, and narcissistic enclaves in which a minority of wealthy individuals, wealthy communities, and wealthy nations seal themselves off from the worst consequences of anthropogenic climate change while leaving the world’s majority to fight it out amongst themselves.
This new order is descended from the social and economic order of slavery, and by extension, of colonization, commemorated by the Confederate statues in Charlottesville and elsewhere that have become the centerpieces of racial conflict. These statues are not simply memorials to persons and events from a difficult past to be contemplated at a safe distance. Just as Holocaust memorials around the world are in fact exhortations that silently insist, “Never Again,” these statues are projects. They are commands in the here and now to “Make America Great Again”—an imperative well understood by their defenders.
There are many ways in which what seem to be entirely separate domains, like environmental politics and racial politics, converge. This is one. The current American “master” concluded his comments in the tower lobby by bragging that he owned “one of the largest wineries in the United States,” located in Charlottesville. Substitute plantation for winery, run his algorithm equating Confederate general Robert E. Lee with fellow slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and remember ExxonMobil and the military-industrial complex to which it belongs, and it becomes clear that the statue the current president was pre-emptively protecting was his own. Not necessarily a literal likeness, though there is abundant evidence for that, but an entire world of owners and plantation masters, and a world of plantations with “big houses,” writ large. A world that governs by, and profits from, crisis, and which looks upon the coming deluge as a long-term investment that has finally matured.
One possible memorial, then, to Heather Heyer’s sacrifice would not only be an individual statue (though that may be appropriate), but masses of them, commemorating the thousands—millions—of deaths to which hers was added. Though the protest, or counterprotest, that she joined seemed directed elsewhere, it asked the infrastructure question—“Does the statue of Robert E. Lee stay up?”—and responded with a decisive “No.” Like other large-scale forms of political and economic violence including war, colonization, and slavery, anthropogenic climate change is not a natural phenomenon; nor is it a historical inevitability. It must now be considered a project. Opposing the pseudo-spontaneity of its leaders’ rallies, as well as the pseudo-individuality of their customers, requires masses of counterprotestors but also, a massively scalable counterproject.
NB: As I write, the Houston area is experiencing an unprecedented weather event and catastrophic flooding. Writing in The Guardian, the prominent climate scientist Michael Mann called the question of climate-change-causing-the-hurricane “an ill-posed question.” Instead, he concluded with confidence that “climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.” Elsewhere, debates have already begun regarding the further deregulation and privatization of infrastructure during rebuilding.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Convention Hall project, Chicago, Illinois (Preliminary version: interior perspective), 1954. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art.