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“11. September, rue Toullier” (a keynote lecture)

February 13, 2019

My second trip to Germany this year took me to Darmstadt, where I had been invited to give a keynote lecture at a conference organized last week by my fellow historians at that city’s technical university: “Urban Infrastructures: Criticality, Vulnerability and Protection“. The event brought together historians, philosophers and social scientists with natural scientists, engineers and state agency representatives in a way I’ve rarely witnessed before. Presentations ranged from Timothy Moss’s sweeping history of Berlin as a vulnerable city in the 20th century, as seen through its infrastructural history, and Uwe Lübken’s interpretation of historical flood experiences in the Ohio River valley to Eva Stock’s report on the practices of actual disaster management efforts in Germany nowadays and Florian Steinke’s critique of the supposedly causal relationship between decentralization and resiliance.

My own keynote address took as its point of departure  the urban infrastructural landscape of early 20th-century Europe, as expressed in literary accounts such as Rilke’s “Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, where the hero, upon his arrival in Paris, lies sleepless at night, overwhelmed by impressions of the city as an infrastructural space in which “people are running, overtaking one another” while “automobiles drive across me” and “the tram, mad with excitement, races up, and across, and away”. In one of those mysterious coincidences that make human history what it is, those notes are dated September 11, pointing directly, as it would seem, to a later era of anxiety, fear, madness and vulnerability in the world’s great cities.

Taking inspiration from Joseph Tainter’s theory of the “collapse of complex societies”, I explored the phenonemon that infrastructural development makes cities and societies complex, but that it also generates far-reaching vulnerabilities, and that cities and societies tend to cope with these vulnerabilities by adding new things to an already complex world, thus further increasing societal complexity in a way that produces new sets of risks, and so on in a spiralling development that would certainly have interested Hegel and other classical scholars, had they been alive.

Recently, however, one can also discern an arguably worrisome “cult of simplicity“, as I call it, reflecting a public desire to move away from things that are too complicated. Abandoning nation-wide and even transnational transmission systems in electricity (while favouring more local, decentralized solutions) is a case in point, along with the experiments in some urban environments to scrap all traffic lights and traffic signs. Unfortunately, this trend has also spilled over into the political field, where the quest for simplicity and simple solutions to complex problems must be understood as one of the major forces behind the success of populist political parties in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere.

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