Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Interstitial Metamorphoses: Informal Urbanism and the Tourist Gaze

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Interstitial Metamorphoses: Informal Urbanism and the Tourist Gaze

Article excerpt

Abstract. Marina Warner has argued that it is in the interstices between inconsistent cultures and ideas that creativity and new paradigms--metamorphoses--arise. In cities of the developing world, the most prominent instances of interstitial spaces and practices relate to questions of urban informality. In one sense, informal settlements insert themselves in the cracks and gaps of the formal city; in another sense, there are the frictions where informal space rubs against the formal, with interstitial practices arising in the cracks and gaps that such confrontations produce; informal economies emerge, spaces and practices are intertwined and intersecting. In yet a further sense, informal practices can invade even the most emblematic spaces of state and formal economy. So, a question: where might one seek signs of metamorphosis--new forms of creativity, new ways of thinking, transformation to a different social condition--in these various forms of informal/formal intersections and interstices? We explore this question with regard to public spaces and political events in Bangkok. The argument of this paper is that a new and potentially transformational level of invasion comes with the searing gaze of global media and tourist intrusion.

Keywords: metamorphosis, assemblage, formality, informality, interstitial practices, Bangkok


"[T]ales of metamorphosis often arise in spaces (temporal, geographical, and mental) that were crossroads, cross-cultural zones, points of interchange on the intricate connective tissue of communications between transitional places and at the confluence of traditions and civilizations."

Warner (2004, pages 17-18)

In Fantastic Metamorphoses: Other Worlds Marina Warner (2004) speculates on transformations and the underlying energies and processes whereby one motif, representation, or idea generates another. She concludes that, on the evidence of history, the transformations that mark great creativity and leaps to new modes of thought and life will most likely occur in those places and times where different cultures collide and all ideas of immutable identity come apart. Metamorphosis, or life-as-change, runs counter to the idea of the unique, singular nature of identity and its defence. We search, therefore, for those 'transitional places' or places of becoming where one might detect the emergence of a new urbanism, politics, and aesthetics. The Warner insight is intriguing but does not suggest a methodology for dealing with the questions we pose. While this paper is at one level an exploration of insertions and subversions of present Bangkok, it also explores methods for bringing critical reflection to such disruptions and instabilities--for theorising them. We begin with a limited survey of the literature that attempts to theorise deep social change (Bloch, Benjamin, Foucault, Nederveen Pieterse, de Certeau, and Deleuze and Guattari), which we see as throwing some light on Warner's idea of interstitial metamorphosis as being epistemologically and ontologically consistent.

Ernst Bloch (writing in 1932) coined the term 'nonsynchronism' to identify the phenomenon of living in a range of different times at once but in the same place, where the montage of new and old held potential for the emergence of new hybrid meanings (Bloch, 1997), producing a "coexistence of realities from different moments of history" (Jameson, 1994, page 307). Walter Benjamin proposed the parallel concept of the dialectic image where one element of an image deconstructs another and both are thereby called into question. Benjamin was interested in the ways juxtapositions of difference in urban life could reveal something of a larger truth--spatial logic could reveal what a linear logic could not, through a 'dialectic of awakening'; for Benjamin dialectic images compel discourse (Buck-Morss, 1989, page 262). Foucault's theory of heterotopia suggests something similar: "heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible" (Foucault, 1986, page 28). …

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