A new Kroger grocery store opened in the center of the downtown area of Cincinnati. It is a high-rise complex with a parking garage and luxury condos. On the day the store opened there was much fanfare. The city made a production out of the event. Large numbers of people gathered. There were prizes awarded for the first few hundred people in the doors. The entry was festooned with balloons and banners. It was a big celebration for the opening of a grocery store. There are a few obvious reasons why the opening of the store was significant. After decades of a general abandonment of the urban core, to have a meaningful grocery store is a welcome change. The corporate headquarters of Kroger Corporation is one block away from this new store. Finally, as the urban core has seen a “renaissance,” as people like to call it, in recent years, this store marks a major moment in which life in the urban core can now feel somewhat complete.
I walked down to the new store, partly out of the same curiosity as everyone else and partly to buy some groceries. The place was mobbed with throngs of people doing nothing but milling around and marveling at the fact that there were aisles filled with groceries to be had. Perhaps they were a little stricken by the fact that this slick new Kroger looked in every way like every other slick new Kroger. Downtown now had its own modern grocery store just like the ones people are used to in the outlying suburban areas. Upstairs from the actual store area, there are restaurants and lounges that sell food, craft beer, and fine wine. People were up above drinking their beer and wine, nibbling on gourmet tacos and barbecue.
In and around the store I could see armed guards, some wearing body armor. All of them on high alert for theft or for a shooter. City leaders had been around earlier in the day, and of course the local news sent their most visually appealing reporters to send live coverage of the happy event. This is the type of popular and media mobilization we associate with the opening of grand civic center. But this is a grocery store.
With a parking garage and condos built right into this freestanding complex, it is now possible to live your entire life in this building. Home, sustenance, and a place for the car are all provided. With a WiFi connection, the entire world is contained under this roof. The condo complex is called “1010 on the Rhine” and provides a “top-floor fitness room, a pet-washing station, rooftop deck with a grilling station and a gathering room. They’ll also have on-site parking and the ability to visit Kroger without stepping outside.” Even your pets are provided for in this complete condensation of the suburban metropolis strategically placed in the center of the urban core.
This place is the triumph of a civic/corporate cooperative push to completely redevelop the urban core. The new grocery store/condos/living community/parking garage encapsulates the recolonization of the urban areas. While the city and many of the citizens celebrate this place as a symbolic resurrection of civic life, it is in fact a completely exclusive private corporate entity. It is utterly exclusive. The base price for a living space is $1399 for a studio. The average cost of one-bedroom apartment in the city of Cincinnati is $1000 a month. The lowest priced and smallest space is well above the average cost for a much larger space. The average pay for a Kroger cashier is between $8.00 and $9.00 an hour and they are generally limited to 20-30 hours a week. This means that the people working the floor of the grocery store gross less money per month than the base price of a living space in 1010 on the Rhine. The living spaces are designed for much higher incomes than the commoners who work the registers and stock the shelves.
What is of interest to me is the fact that the city exists in all its fullness prior to the construction of such a monument to economic disparity and naked classist exploitation. What I mean is that there was no shortage of spaces to place the wealthy in exclusive spaces prior to the construction of 1010 on the Rhine. There was also a Kroger grocery store just a few blocks away that had been left to molder from managerial neglect and relegated to catering to the poor. Vast amounts of money went into the construction of this new project, no more than would have been necessary to rehab what was already present. The cooperative agreement between the city and corporate developers is not aimed at redeveloping the city. It is aimed at creating something entirely new over and above the city. The drives of the spectacle, of Empire, have over-ridden the drives of a public body in order to create a pseudo-urban space that nullifies the immediacy of existing urban space.
After the archaeological excavation of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada had been documented and found to be authentic, the Canadian government designated the find a National Historic Site of Canada. With that designation, the site was re-buried and replicas were built of the Norse buildings that were believed to exist there. The Canadian government revealed a real Norse settlement complete with the ruins of buildings and other evidence, then upon realizing its historic value, hid the site effectively rendering it non-existent and then marked it with an artificial version of what was found. The presence of the Norse settlement was rendered absent and the absence is now marked by a presence that is a replication of a real that no one has access to. It is a double that has no single. This is a microcosm of 1010 on the Rhine. First, there is no Rhine. There is a four-lane parkway that cuts through the middle of the city. The “Rhine” refers to the neighborhood historically designated as Over-the-Rhine. The parkway now runs over an area that was once a canal one hundred years ago. All the language used to name 1010 on the Rhine is fiction. Second, the development is on a former parking lot. The entire thing was constructed over an urban desert. Surrounding the area is the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood as it has been re-imagined in the image of an image of a historic neighborhood. The historic urban space was covered by a present-day ideal and buried under a high-rise condo, shopping, and dining complex dominated by a multi-level parking lot. The old “settlement” of Over-the Rhine is now preserved by an image of a community.
This is all part of an overall tendency to re-invent lost space in the form of spectacular life. A November 4, 2018 report in the New York Times describes the process of “curating” dying small towns in order to make them into tourist destinations with slick new boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. The town of Mountain Dale, New York has been transformed from an economically dying small town into a simulacrum of a small rural town with the help of a “town curator” who works for a publication called DV-8. Their express mission is to “turn Main Street into a living version of the magazine” (Miller, 2018). While it is clear that the towns were in fact dying of inanition prior to some kind of economic intervention, it is a mistake to say that the towns have been saved. What we are left with is a carefully constructed image of a town on the site where a town once existed. Since global consumer capital has no place left on Earth to devour, it is eating itself in the form of small towns and urban neighborhoods, replacing all existing space with simulacra of what once was and nullifying anything that is not amenable to consumer capital. Walmart has joined this movement. Not content to take over existing space, Walmart constructs small towns out of whole cloth with “plans to build ‘reimagined centers’—that is, faux towns—adjacent to eight stores. These will include ‘a carefully curated mix’ of food, shopping, wellness, entertainment and green space, as well as day care, pet care, and bike shares” (Miller, 2018). From curated small towns to carefully curated artificial small towns, and finally back to a curated urban space, all of this negates life with artificial forms of life that are squarely administered by corporate interests. The care these corporate masters take in curating these spaces allows them to be presented as “free choices” to a populace that has no choice, and an even larger populace who are only too happy to relinquish choice in exchange for a pre-fab life free of the burden of freedom. Rejecting any and all substantial life in favor of spectacular life, we have turned toward a form of everyday life that is just as insubstantial as all the other junk commodities which define our existence because “nothing is more inauthentic or more suspect than ‘authenticity” (Tiqqun, 70). In the society of the spectacle, we turn away from authentic life with disgust in order to obtain a reproduction of a form of life that never existed. We want the double that has no single so that we may exist in the absence that marks a presence that can only be understood in its absence.
Places like 1010 on the Rhine and the curated small towns like Mountain Dale, and certainly the artificial small towns offered by Walmart, are not simply fakes that efface the decaying old cities and towns. Nor are they innocent methods of saving dying towns and cities. They constitute a force of the contemporary metropolis that denies lived life and replaces it with a form of life that is foreign and inhuman. By replacing an organically derived public sphere with a pseudo-public sphere that is in fact a totally (totalitarian) private sphere, we efface all difference and all communication that does not emanate from the singular source of a totalizing private ownership. Diffuse human communication, which is one of the necessary conditions of the public sphere, is replaced with a singular source of communication and the very condition for politics becomes a central authority that defines the political and the conditions of everyday life. The power that drives this, private corporate capital, can only centralize all power in its own image by endlessly reconfiguring the space in which we live as a simulated space of public and private life thus negating public life and rendering private life more of the isolated non-life of the spectacle.“The political synthesis of social space is fixed in the space of communication,” and this space then isolates and separates the forms of everyday life (Hardt and Negri, 33). What is more, “Power, as it produces, organizes; as it organizes, it speaks and expresses itself as authority” (Hardt and Negri, 33). This power and authority are not that of individuals in these curated corporate spaces. It is the power and authority of the corporate ownership of these spaces. With this hand-over of the spaces of life, we hand over the means of producing life. Life, bare life, is negated altogether in favor of a commodified image of life into which we gain access via our economic status. Spaces like 1010 on the Rhine and the corporate curated small towns nullify the existence of everything outside the private pseudo-public sphere. The outside becomes unnecessary so that the very conditions of a community, and an outside that brings communication together from diverse places and diverse voices, can no longer take place. These spaces are privatized replacements for public space. They deny the conditions necessary for a public and a common space of communication and community and in doing, they create “protected, interior spaces” (Hardt and Negri, 188). Lived experience has no value within these privatized and isolated spaces since experience is meaningless in the absence of shared experiences. The only way experience becomes a shared event is through images of experience. Experience in the commodified and curated image of life becomes yet another commodity that circulates like all the others, and real lived experience becomes increasingly inconsequential. We do not live a valid experience until we have insinuated this experience into the circulation of images of experience. We have become consumers of existence, and we have “replaced the emptiness of experience with the experience of emptiness” (Tiqqun, 51).
Embodied in the metropolitan hipster, “the ultimate consumer of existence,” we see the experience of emptiness everywhere (Tiqqun, 51). The re-colonization of the urban areas by the metropolis that spread across the nation in the form suburban sprawl has infected the urban centers with its banality. The ubiquity of people taking photographs of themselves doing absolutely anything and everything, or nothing at all, is much more than simple vanity and egocentrism. What drives this need to document every aspect of life is the drive to situate individual experience in the pseudo-time and space of the spectacle which is rendered even more abstract by the simulacrum of sociality in the form of social media. Instagram is the site in which the experience of everyday life takes on validity. Witness the proliferation of individuals posing for professional photographers in any public space. Urban parks are an obvious choice, but cemeteries now need to regulate the use of cameras and photographers because of the sheer number of people who document their lives for a lens which will validate their experiences in the ultimate space of inauthenticity: the World Wide Web. Because “Lived experience is always the raw material of the social contract, the coin in which the entry fee is paid,” experience that is dictated and predetermined by privatized space with its preestablished and pre-scripted norms and rules forecloses the possibility of authentic individual experience (Vaniegem, 122). This is life that has been regimented by consumerist laws prior to being lived. We then adopt these prescribed choices as our own. We gain on the level of being relieved of the burden of being ourselves, and we lose as everyday life becomes devoid of substance. In this way, “the greater the appeal of inauthenticity” becomes (Vaneigem, 122). Everyday life is insubstantial life: “Under the commodity occupation, the most concrete truth about everything is that of its infinite substitutability” (Tiqqun, 22). For a commodity to function as such, it must be devoid of inherent qualities in order to be substituted for other commodities. Its existence is defined by quantity, not quality. Life in 1010 on the Rhine is life as the empty commodity in which home is only quantitatively different from the beef jerky available in the check-out aisle on the first floor.
The ready-made insulated space, the Walmart small towns and curated small towns, the suburban metropolis devoid of time and place—all of this nullifies the conditions from which we can experience life. All that is left is a system of experiences. We shift into roles and situational identities as commodified conditions determine the types of experience available to us. Going to a park cannot entail the simple features of an urban park: trees, paths, random turns across green space, etc. Urban parks now come with a soundtrack, scheduled activities, a bar area, dog park, ad infinitum. People go to the park to perform their urban lives as they do yoga in public or participate in group exercise classes complete with loud music form which there is no escape. There is no room for being in an urban space and simply doing nothing at all. Spectacular life rules all life, and experience itself must be a spectacle. There are strict rules of behavior both written and implied for how we conduct ourselves in the realm of experience:
Within the Spectacle and within the metropolis, people never
experience concrete events, but only conventions, rules, and
a completely symbolized, completely constructed second nature.
What prevails there is a radical split between the insignificance of
everyday, so-called private, life, where nothing happens, and the
transcendence of a congealed history in a so-called public sphere
to which no one has access. (Tiqqun, 49)
So-called private life is meaningless life because it cannot be experienced as valid and meaningful until it is inserted into a public performance, until it is part of pseudo-cyclical time that transforms private life into a commodified event. The events of a private life are of no interest even to the person who experiences these events since they do not take on substantiality without external validation. “A website makes it real,” claims the Squarespace advertising slogan. The so-called public sphere no longer exists since it has been ingested by global capital and private ownership. None of the features of a public sphere can exist in thoroughly privatized space, and those who live in these spaces are ensconced in still further privatized spaces. In the form of life installed by global Empire and instantiated by places such as 1010 on the Rhine, we lose the public sphere because “the place outside where we act in the presence of others, has been both universalized (because we are always now under the gaze of others, monitored by safety cameras) and sublimated or de-actualized in the virtual spaces of the spectacle” (Hardt and Negri, 189). What we are left with is the empty realm of isolation and separation presented as a renaissance for the 21st Century city. Nothing here is re-born, and the city has been interred like the Norse village at L’Ainse aux Meadows. An artificial city has been placed over the grave that provides a place for everyone to enact their simulated lives, taking on roles as each role is socially appropriate. Relieved of the burden of freedom, and relieved of the burden of being a self, the liberated and interchangeable individual can now successfully enact any and all forms of living the algorithm may devise.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Miller, Jennifer. “Can You Curate a Town?” The New York Times. November 3, 2018.
Tiqqun. Theory of Bloom. Tr. Robert Hurley. LBC Books, 2012.
Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life. Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.