Productive Congestion

The State of the Assembly

The fever pitched verbal slurry of an auction attempts to unseat reason through an onslaught of pure speed. Forced to bid quickly if they are interested, customers in an auction suffer a reduction in their ability to think matters through. Lacking the drag co-efficient of thought, the logic goes, sale prices will escalate unimpeded as buyers seek to secure their purchase.

A more plodding customer base favors the flea market- realm of perpetual bargain. With a collection of vendors spread out in space, the flea market is a microcosm of the market at large: a sea of buyers and sellers ready to negotiate a purchase price that's agreeable to both parties. Here in the market, time is essential to price. Waiting out and arguing down your opponent are two critical tactics of bargaining. From a buyer's perspective, near-by vendors offering similar products for better prices transforms the spatial disposition of the market into a token of temporal pressure which may be exerted upon the preferred seller: "if you don't give me a better price I'm going over there. Think quickly!"

Democracy, like the market, is a task of patience. If fixed consumer prices are the element of efficiency that tethers the chaos of the auction and the flea market, rules of order play a similar role in democratic governments. Debate, voting, motions, and general procedures are introduced as methods of structuring human-to-human interaction. Ostensibly to maintain "order" in the conversation, these rules actually serve to carefully extenuate the proceedings and prevent them from devolving into a legislative auction. Through the wordy scripts of government and the weighty requirements of documentation, waiting time is breathed into legislative proceedings. Fundamentally, this discursive padding allows the formulation of better arguments from opposing parties and furthers the atmosphere of trial-by-fire that typifies competitive, argumentative, democratic proceedings. If competition is the operative mode of capitalism and democracy both, congestion is their healthy fallout.

This "boisterous sea of liberty," as Jefferson called it (Bernstein p. 121), promises to delivery higher quality products by congesting the drive towards completion just long enough to allow actors to competitively develop the most favorable solution. Too much congestion slows all progress to a halt and too little allows a tyranny of the minority to progress towards self-interested goals. Efficiency can be too much of a good thing. Conversely, the counter-intuitive logic of congestion forces all parties involved to maintain a state of vigilance and thus to also conduct themselves carefully. To further congest the proceedings of government is to force politicians to "prove their assertions against other assertions and come to closure without thumping and kicking," in Bruno Latour's words.

Assertions, not facts: these abstract building blocks of argument require the development of cares and concerns, positions, and even armatures of rhetoric. When facts cease to be facts this is evidence of more than a single lie; it identifies a systemic failure of the decision making apparatus to usefully evaluate the issues at hand. Forced by a drive towards transparency, Powell's presentation to the UN was a comic parade of images aimed at the broader public rather than experts. The proof is in the Powerpoint. By holding government "accountable to the people" in the name of "transparency" the terms of discussion are necessarily dumbed down to a level that no longer benefits from expertise. Because "complicated proof-giving equipment" (Latour) demands expert level understanding and brings with it opaque dialog such equipment has been banned from our assemblies. Yet, contemporary issues are sufficiently complex that assemblies must serve public desire with the benefit of disciplinary expertise. The congestive power of expert arguments bides time for analysis in a way that is diametrically opposed to the hotting-up of legislative dialog by psuedo-factual statements.

The Contemporary Assembly (This is painful)

Now a sort of black box brimming with expertise, the public building must take the radical step of favoring its own efficiency over the efficacy of its representative character. The myth of empirical assessment being wiped from the required qualities of a public building, its mass and urban presence are given symbolic imperative and thus the happenings of the interior are divorced from the outside image of the building. Instead of being a machine open for all to inspect, specific avenues are provided for the public to perform diagnostics. A further public interiority is developed through the addition of other (mundane) programs which benefit the city, weave the building into its context, and brings potential agents of diagnostic sortition into the building.

If waiting time is the currency of democracy, the public building should be able to represent the ephemeral as well as the stable. Paired with the dual demands of security and flexibility of the interior, this quality of ephemerality is the sole thing that links the building's representative exterior to its functional interior. Sloterdijk suggests that the "polis is a reservoir for symbolic objects that are to be given a longer presence in the shared community" (Latour p. 948) and while public buildings will always lag behind media, they should nevertheless keep a loose pace with the public who erected them. A little literalness never hurt anyone.

Floating around my head while writing this: The Federalist Papers (esp. 1-15, 85), R. B. Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson, Bruno Latour's Making Things Public, Sarah Whiting's dissertation The Jungle In The Clearing, and Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York.