Amateur urbanism as political praxis, Andy Merrifield & Bernard Stiegler

Following a link posted by my colleague Clive Barnett I discovered the excellent collection of essays Andy Merrifield has collected in his website, which have all(?) been previously published elsewhere. I’ve been working through this treasure trove and was particularly struck by one of these essays.

Earlier in 2015, Merrifield published an ‘intervention’ on the Antipode website entitled “Future Shock“, in which he contemplates the absence of contemporary thinking of radical futures following a collapse of future thinking into a technocratic status quo.

Merrifield relates this to Edward Said’s 1993 BBC Reith Lectures on representations of the intellectual, and the amateur and the professional. Merrifield suggests:

[P]rofessionalism, said Said, can constitute a form of compliant behavior, of making yourself marketable and presentable to the powers that be. None of which denies the need for competence, for being conscientious about what you do, and for having the right skills to do it.

He argues that it is a form of professionalism that has facilitated a particular kind of ethos for corporate urban development, a development that

enables all sorts of ideas [to be] imposed on peoples’ lives from above, all kinds of paradigms that go from professional boardrooms to somebody’s drafty living room, if they’re lucky enough to have a living room.

He lays out an intellectual/ policy lineage from ‘authoritative’ urbanism to authoritarian ‘austerity’. Merrifield begins with Roger Starr, writer of Urban Choices: The City and Its Critics, who criticised the likes of Mumford, Jacobs and Gans as meddling amateurs, who became New York City’s Housing Commissioner and in 1976 masterminded a national program following directly from his earlier representations of urban reality: “Planned Shrinkage”.

Sketching forward to today, Merrifield asks us to consider the historical lineage between Planned Shrinkage and frenzied pursuit for “austerity.” he argues that Planned Shrinkage and austerity have two common characteristics.

First, is an overriding goal to rundown and/or plunder the public sector, to make “unproductive” public services productive for vested unproductive interests–you know, for financial parasites on the make. Second, both policies justify their programs though made up “evidence.” For austerity, just as for Planned Shrinkage, economists are the redoubtable voice of authority.

Thus, the amateur, counter-posed to the ‘professional’ is a political figure. Arguing, earlier in the intervention, through Said, Merrfield argues:

Professionalism means having an expertise to hide behind, an often narrow expertise, an esoteric language that sets you apart, that gains entry into a professional bodies, one strictly off-limits to rank amateurs. Amateurs, by contrast, aren’t moved by profit or pay; they usually care more about ideas and values not tied down to any profession; their vision is often more expansive, more eclectic, not hampered by the conservatism of narrow expertise, preoccupied with defending one’s intellectual turf. To be an amateur is to express the ancient French word: love of, a person who engages on an unpaid basis, a non-specialist, a layperson. Nothing pejorative intended. Amateurs sometimes care for ideas that question professional authority because they express concerns professions don’t consider, don’t see, don’t care about.

This has great resonance with a very similar understanding of the figure of the amateur, equally political, put forward by Bernard Stiegler. In the Ars Industrialis ‘vocabulary’, Stiegler argues that the amateur:

is the name given to one who loves works or who realizes him- or her- self in traversing such works. There are lovers of science and technology, just as one speaks of art lovers. The figure of the amateur extends the figure of taste, as suggested by the Enlightenment, as cognition of the sensible or mediation of the immediate, as the singularity of an educated sentiment. It accompanies, therefore, the question of the formation of a critical public (irreducible to the audience).

Thus, in counterpoising the amateur to the professional both Merrifield (via Said) and Stiegler (sort-of via Weber) argue that the role of amateurism is crucial to producing alternative ways of economic, political and social living.


For the urban is itself a political object, a very special virtual political object; so is the “right to the city.” Urban rights are ones that need inventing, need inventing offensively; they aren’t established safeguards already there, ones you can invoke defensively…

Since we amateurs don’t have that means or money, we must start concrete and try to scale upwards and outwards, try to realize our abstract renderings, our utopian and futuristic yearnings.


The figure of the amateur is the ideal type for the economy of contribution because the amateur is the one who builds him- or her- self a sustainable libidinal economy and does not expect industrial society to put it in place.

Both Merrifield and Stiegler offer laudable appeals to amateurism and the ground-up D.I.Y political action that, of course, also resonates with the forms of horizontalist political activism we are becoming used to seeing that operate both against austerity and towards alternative forms of urban life. Nevertheless, one might be left wondering, when reading both accounts, where the space is for collectivity? In both accounts the ‘virtual’ and the ‘transindividual’ are the conceptual footholds from which to forge such questions –it is in the immanent potential of the virtual that we, collectively, are produced and reciprocally produce the future and such a potential is performed within and through the various relations between our ‘selves’:

“The “I”, as a psychic individual, can only be thought in relationship to a “we”, which is a collective individual: the “I” is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits, and in which a plurality of “Is” acknowledge each other’s existence.”

[Stiegler, Desire & Knowledge]

This is an interesting (to me anyway!) parallel theorisation of the amateur and no doubt there are more… I think the close to Merrifield’s Antipode intervention is particularly effective:

Rights aren’t passive: they become your right by working through danger, by orchestrating effective political action. You make rights your right. Hence the reason why so many people misunderstand what’s meant by right to the city, where the future necessarily stalks the present; horizons open up for the virtual to be glimpsed, for rights to actualize themselves through politics. Virtual theory, as such, isn’t a theory that explains reality, nor even “corresponds” with reality; it’s more a theory that is correct because it enables politics to be correct. It nurtures the correct politics, a robust and possible Left politics: theory here opens up space for a radical politics that hitherto wasn’t there, that as yet has no space. It opens up the vastest and most thrilling futuristic space of all, the noblest of all cloud-cuckoo lands: the continent of hope.

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