Review of: Pamela Odih, Adsensory Urban Ecology (2 vols.), Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2019. HB 978-1-5275-2468-2
This is raw political economy. Odih, a teacher at Goldsmiths, befriends neighbours of the Grenfell Tower fire; ill-fated trees of the Thames bank; the buskers, jugglers, and portrait artists of Trafalgar Square and Brick Lane. That is to say: her concern is nature, women, youth, and refugees in an era suspended between the anachronism of Brexit and open-ended high tech futures. It’s a massive read, with two volumes running to over 1000 pages in total – and Odih’s dense writing style is testing to say the least. But the length of the treatise is largely due to the researcher’s respect for her ‘subjects’ and desire to have their faces, voices, and art upfront. In fact, these victims of neoliberal capital are a vital photographic presence in the book. Beyond this mediated immediacy, the reader discovers a text brimming with theoretic ingenuity – a feminist socialist decolonial conversation prompted by Marx, the early Frankfurt School, assorted poststructuralists, and even ‘care’ literature.
Odih invites us to read post-industrial urban ecology through ‘the technology of sign systems’ as these operate in the biopolitics of markets, finance, and IT. In particular, her focus is on inscription of the body as both a subject and object of patriarchal colonial capitalist practices, in an adsensory world where everyday wellbeing is being replaced by a disembodied actuarial future.
The book develops from Odih’s earlier work on Advertising and Cultural Politics in Global Times and Adsensory Financialisation. Her concept of adsensory technology is a response to the late 20th century urban economic shift from manufacture to services, the rise of information-based industry and of new technically trained elites. This is a habitus largely detached from the senses. Thus, in these times, capitalist technologies mine landscapes and living bodies as objects of accumulation. Foucault’s Technologies of the Self is ever at hand; but under neoliberalism, Odih finds that surveillance far exceeds the panopticon. Today, the engineers of citizenship, risk and insurance track and codify the healthy body with digital monitors of hourly heart rate and such.
Odih cites Marcuse’s work on the intrusive positivist epistemology of marketing and management, a clear-eyed stance that anticipated poststructural critique by a generation. Reflecting on artistic self-determination, copyright, and appropriation in the era of Google and Spotify, Odih invokes a 1941 essay by Marcuse on the fate of critical reason wherever technological rationality reigns.
Ideas such as liberty, productive industry, planned economy, satisfaction of needs, are then fused with the interests of control and competition … Tangible organizational success thus outweighs the exigencies of critical rationality (Marcuse: 148).
Moreover, she unpacks the vacuity of contemporary urban administration with its Value for Money principle, suggesting that a bureaucratic commitment to VfM decision-making was the efficient cause of the Grenfell Tower conflagration. Although Odih entertains the role of cheap cladding as an ‘actor’ in the death scenario, ultimately she finds that it was human choices by Kensington and Chelsea Council administrators which constituted the murderous bottom line.
Volume I of Adsensory Urban Ecology leads the reader through a gentrifying London to its celebrity personae like Mayor Boris Johnson and actress Joanna Lumley. Both were advocates of the Garden Bridge cross-Thames walkway project, with its spectacular new views and bijou catering opportunities for pleasuring the tourist. That fantasy venture takes Odih into a 21st century reflection on Marx’s theory of ground rent. And beyond this, she observes how upper class neoliberal enthusiasts of the new Thames bridge development cynically borrowed the gendered language of ‘care’ to sell the project to a skeptical wider community.
In Volume II, Odih finds that instruments of financialisation also penetrate handcrafts and regulate music production in old city spaces like Trafalgar Square. Now a pedestrian piazza gentrified for tourism, a colourful human residue of buskers converts the site into a unique source of ‘value-added’. Urban London is quite explicit in its capture of these entertainers – offering them licenses to perform via the online media platform – buskinlondon.com. Likewise, entry of this free floating artistic population into the exchange economy and its debt trap is encouraged via the distribution of convenient cashless cards. ‘Contactless’ busking is the neoliberal word – no longer a handful of coins tossed with a smile into an upturned hat. The value generated by the busker population is essentially a de facto rent for the privilege of occupying clean public spaces.
Not afraid of theoretic promiscuity, Odih’s scholarship is fertile. She entertains Marx’s and Adorno’s humanism – not against, but in tandem with Bell’s post-industrialism and Latour’s actor networks. She describes her methodology as dialogical, ‘a compassionate critical ethnography’ with street interviews and performances live-streamed (Odih: cxx). Berger’s classic book Ways of Seeing is cited frequently, and the research moves through grounded theory onwards to elaborate applications of social media – recorded chance encounters, cameo conversations, and Twitter dialogues.
That said, there is something of a contradiction between this heavy use of digital technologies in the project’s method – and the author’s critical feminist and decolonial view of algorithm culture. As an environmental activist and post-development thinker, I am uncomfortable with this methodological reliance on CMC (computer mediated communication) given the extractivist costs of resourcing such ‘aids’ on an already fragile planet.
Odih identifies several forms of capital – social, aesthetic, technical – functioning in the urban ecosystem through a complex of transactional relations. As she writes:
… in the informational economy a fourth-order of simulacra is establishing vital prominence whereby the sign has become adsensory and is subject to a polymerous financialisation in which timely assemblages of sign technologies avariciously (dis)entangle simulation from the opaque realities of sign-systems in which the body is both subject and object (Odih: 396).
She clearly loves the play of sociological ideas – as evident in chapter titles like ‘The Dialectics of Acoustic Soundscaping’ … But her base line question is:
What form of capital accumulation is emerging from the integration of adsensory technology into the gentrification of post-industrial urban spaces? (Odih: cxix)
My own interest in Odih’s thinking is not so much in the vicissitudes of capitalism as an abstract and autonomous sign system, as in her feeling for capital’s Other. That is, in the epistemological wealth of non-valued embodied forms of knowing as sustain the social underbelly of global life. Here I find another disjunction; this time between Odih’s respect for the non-linear existential praxis of women food growers or housewifely street fighters, versus her academic desire to process them under Foucault’s poststructural theory of the sign. The grassroots reaction might be: ‘We bypass the master and deal with socio-ecological cycles using the regenerative logic of our own hands-on learning’. My research reveals that in global South and North, the embodied materialism of this un-named labour class is already defying centuries of patriarchal colonial capitalist appropriation. This applies to both the insistent economic subsumption of ‘metabolic value’ and to the insistent symbolic subsumption of worker subjectivities as ‘native’ or ‘feminine’.
Odih comments elsewhere in the book that Marx, inspired by Epicurus, saw human sensuousness as time in embodied form (Odih: pcxiii). This calls her to ponder the liberatory potential of an indeterminate, ‘aleatory materialism’. She goes on to draw a conventional ‘culturally gendered’ contrast between the linear time trajectories of domination versus the minority mode of circular time taught by caring labours. Talking with Brick Lane artists, she finds further aspects of this immaterial labour in the relational worldview of buskers. Hopefully Odih’s next theoretical foray will tell us more about this pluriverse, with its open-ended dialectical energies. And besides Marxist ecofeminism, Bourdieu’s insights on habitus from The Logic of Practice may be a promising guide in that. These epistemological observations are critically important because they speak to the possibility of ‘another ecology’.
Theodor Adorno, ‘On Popular Music’, Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, 1941, Vol. 9, 17-48.
Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. R. Nice (trans.), Cambridge: Polity, 2017 .
Michel Foucault, ‘Technologies of the Self’ in L. Martin, L., H. Gutman and P. Hutton (eds.), Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock, 1988.
Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta (eds.), Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. New Delhi, AuthorsUpFront, 2019.
Bruno Latour, Re-Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Herbert Marcuse, ‘Some Implications of Modern Technology’ in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds.), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum 2002 .
Karl Marx, ‘Difference between the Democritian and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ in P. Schaffer (ed.) The First Writings of Karl Marx. New York: IG Publlshing, 2006 .
Pamela Odih, Advertising and Cultural Politics in Global Times. London: Routledge, 2016 .
Pamela Odih, Adsensory Financialisation. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2016.