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The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear

review - By Lieven De Cauter, NAi Publishers, 2004. 208pp. £20

Translated from Belgian academic-speak, the circular argument of the preamble isn't promising, writes Austin Williams. De Cauter ridicules the idea that the book could possibly be about 'the politics of the city' because this phrase is a pleonasm, but concludes that ''the politics of the city' is indeed the true subject of this book'. I was confused.

The following chapters don't really clarify the thesis. They include a detailed critique, or should I say, an obsequious regurgitation of Rem Koolhaas' opening chapter in S, M, L, XL; further chapters are entitled 'The Neo-Theatrical City' and 'The Rise of Heterotopia', and conclude with some rather juvenile 'insights' into the War on Terror. Admittedly, once past the pretentiousness, there are some surprisingly readable parts.

The title comes from the 'Capsule Declaration', Kurokawa's 1969 Metabolist manifesto, and is described here as 'a device that creates an artificial ambiente, which minimises communication with the outside by forming its own time-space milieu.' De Cauter continues:

'The capsule abolishes the public sphere? capsular architecture is ostrich politics.' Unwittingly, an implicit contemptuousness oozes out of the text. 'Someday, ' he says, 'a historian discussing our times will name the present era one of the most obscene in world history.'

From an isolationist framework of understanding, De Cauter sees capsules such as computer screens and Walkmans as causes of introspection, seclusion and containment. Using case-study examples or newspaper cuttings, he draws tenuous parallels with detention camps, exclusionary politics and immigration control.

And even though this seems like a humanistic trajectory, he ends up feeling helpless, able only to condemn current practices and to fear for the future.

His pontification about the war and the Imperial World Order is crass, populist and incongruous ('Bush and Rumsfeld are hypocrites', 'Mohammad Atta was an architect', etc); his understanding of global warming is annoyingly dated (quoting 'The Limits To Growth' unquestioningly); and his humanism has very clear limits (stating that 'the world is becoming so overpopulated that we, as a species, are reaching the limits of our biotype, the Earth').

This collection of essays is a rather self-indulgent exercise that seems to forget the original premise of the book. The idea that today's culture of fear gives rise to increased surveillance and suspicion isn't helped by the author's own endorsement of the need to be fearful. His best attempt at optimism is 'critical pessimism'. In all honesty, I can only recommend this book to Open University sociologists, criminal psychologists, or Belgian post-structuralists.

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