Foaming Relations: Urban Habitus of Affect

The German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk uses the analogy of foam to describe the relations that cohere between one individual and the next, each co-isolated in the context of the modern city. Our habits, in co-production with the framing of our urban habitus, determine that we are arranged as networks of isolated, bubble-like, monadic cells. By effervescent means we nevertheless find ways of communicating across the cell walls that we share, and which divide us. I will enlist a series of concepts to consider the foaming relations that go toward forming the life of the urban habitus. These will include, relational aesthetics (Nicolas Bourriaud); ethico-aesthetics (Félix Guattari); human and nonhuman relations (Bruno Latour) all of which will help toward articulating a foaming, bubbling mass of relations that are external to their terms. Despite, and also because of, the ‘ego-technological’ mania facilitated through new technologies – think iPod or iPhone – it is possible to imagine relations between actors as a ‘living foam’ shared out by a singular substance or stuff, animated by the circulation of affects and percepts. This would appear to suggest that although our daily habits determine that we live out increasingly capsular existences, new collective modes of expression and challenging forms of sociability are still possible, as long as those bubbles keep seething, foaming, and do not entirely evaporate into thin air.

Through the medium of foam I want to address the idea of the urban habitus, or how it might be imagined, as a foaming mass of relations that is ever-transforming, that is composed of bubbles of affect that spring up only to dissipate again, fleetingly. In this I am inspired by a short essay called, ‘Foam City’, a translated excerpt from the German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk’s great triptych, Sphären, which is composed of Spheres I: Bubble/Blow; Spheres II: Globes; Spheres III: Foam. I also draw upon a further essay, ‘Cell Blocks, Ego-Spheres, Self-Container’. One of the things Sloterdijk demonstrates is that once you begin to look for  spheres in the form of bubbles, globes and foam, they seem to spring up everywhere, appearing in all variety of forms and inaugurating all kinds of relations: beginning with the archetypal, predictable and yet still astonishing space of the mother’s womb as protective sphere of habitation of the child: A first bubble that is blown that creates a dyadic structure, or an immediate relation between two. Foam, Sloterdijk argues, appears with many creation myths, as though it were a kind of prime stuff, base material and fertile substance that composes life (Sloterdijk, ‘Foam City’, 92).

It appears, for instance, in the myth of Aphrodite (also known as Venus), who is ‘foam arisen’, as a translation of her name suggests, born out of genital remains of Uranus and the foaming waters of the sea near the coast of Cyprus (after Cronus cut off Ouranos’s, or Uranus, genitals and threw them behind him into the sea). What you need to hold in mind is the seething live animation of the foam that crashes about the feet of Aphrodite, or the foam that froths at the mouth of the madman, or the simple bubbles children blow. Naturally occurring foam congregates as bubbles of many sizes.

Consider also the Soap Bubble Sets of Joseph Cornell, universes in miniature.

There are soap bubbles too in the 17th Century Dutch Still life paintings known as vanitas, that depict the fleeting and transitory passage of time and present us with our mortality. Added to this image repertoire, as Sloterdijk illustrates, is a whole history of architecture.

Obvious enlightenment inclusions are Etienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton (1784) and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s House of the Agricultural Guard (1780): both of which assume that the sphere must be perfect in its manifestation, but the myriad domes that architecture bring us, as well as a plethora of partial sphere and bubble-like forms generally proliferate.

Even the Sydney Opera House by Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, was generated out of sections of a semi-sphere.

Spheres are everywhere, and as Gaston Bachelard once said, “being is round”: “I should say therefore: das Dasein ist rund, being is round” (The Poetics of Space, 1994, 234). Sloterdijk himself notes an early debt to Bachelard’s phenomenology from which he will depart again. BUT Roundness here is only adequate if it does not insist on the perfection of an ideal sphere. The beauty of bubbles is rather in their irregular not quite spherical instantiations: when bubbles, individuals, or beings amass and cohere, their influence on one another creates all manner of formal distortion. The sphere then is a hypothetical limit, an ideal form artificially or hylomorphically imposed that denies the material behaviour, expression or matter-flow of any given system. It goes without saying that Boullée and Ledoux’s utopian projects were never built. What is more interesting is the network of relations that articulate the emergence and disappearance of the multitudinous bubbles that form foam, or else we could say, the living stuff of what Sloterdijk has called foam-city.

“Foaming Relations: Urban Habitus of Affect”, Re-imagining the Urban Habitus Symposium, convened by Prof. Elizabeth Grierson, School of Art, Art, Knowledge and Globalisation Research Cluster, RMIT University, 10th December, 2008. Invited Symposium Lecture.