By Lois Ascher

The right to the city: the entitled and the excluded - The Urban Reinventors, Special issue, November 2009

In the afterword to the Signet Classic edition of George Orwell’s 1984 Erich Fromm defines doublethink as: “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them” (Orwell 322) while believing in them BOTH consciously and unconsciously. It is the unconscious aspect of doublethink that is its most troubling quality, however. This is the identical coma that permits us to recycle our waste while allowing our sprinkler systems to function in a rainstorm or, in a more lethal paradigm, it is the ability to believe in the first amendment AND simultaneously accept the restriction of our rights to free speech and all that it implies by the very institutions charged with guarding them.

Fromm may well have applied this definition of doublethink to the delicate dance performed by the contemporary city dweller as he seeks to negotiate the urban environment, declaring his first amendment rights under the watchful eyes of an increasingly invasive surveillance - cameras, police presence, the Patriot Act, to name just a few- whose necessity he accepts without questioning. This incongruity occurs when the individual has so completely surrendered his self to the institution, that he experiences that “self” as a creature of the state or other organization. History is replete with examples of this surrender.

In contrast to this unconscious surrendering of the self to the status quo is the idea of democracy as an “agon”, defined as a contest which involves an “energetic discourse” (Phillips 33) rather than collective passivity. To be part of the democratic process, this discourse must occur in a public space which is, according to Rosalyn Deutsche, understood as “always structured by conflict and oppositionality” (Lee 85), and is “the basis of a democratic spatial politics.” [...]

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Lois Ascher is a Professor in the Humanities Department at Wentworth Institute in Boston, MA where she teaches courses in literature and art and theory, and co-directs the Honors English Program.  Her research and teaching interests align themselves within the intersections of these course areas, particularly the examination of seminal western values through the lens of contemporary events. As American culture transitions into a surveillance society, the effort by artists to reinvent urban public space as an agonistic theater of discourse has emerged as a particular interest in her research. Their effort to interrupt the unconscious patterns of daily life that make people vulnerable to political and social doublethink is especially to be found in the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko.  Being awarded the Myron Coler Philanthropic Term Professorship has given her the opportunity to investigate Wodiczko’s artistic efforts to expose the hidden conflicts and unstated political agendas present in the urban environment. 

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