Thumbelina in New Babylon?

After World War II many artists and intellectuals started to believe that this disaster to humanity was an inevitable consequence of essentialism, modernism and capitalism. They hoped for a new society with new values and structures. One of them was Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005), who was a prominent member of CoBrA, an international operating group of experimental artists. Constant (that’s how he presented himself) was a painter and designer of experimental architecture, which he called ‘New Babylon’.

Constant was involved in the movement of Situationist International and became famous for his radical ideas about architecture and urbanism. He believed that simply rebuilding the cities of before the war was not a solution for creating a new and better society. According to Constant this new society should not be constructed on distinctions of class, producer/consumer or artist/recipient. It was a true Marxist dream of equality and freedom from labor.

New Babylon should become the place where this new society could emerge – a global architectural dynamic structure. According to Constant, nobody should have to work anymore (in the future); all labor would be automated. Everybody would be free to go anywhere and should live a nomadic life. This new society is a society of fluency: in New Babylon it is impossible to stay at one place for more than a few days, there are no houses, just hotel rooms.

Constant, Gele Sector (detail) (Yellow Sector), 1958, metal (iron, aluminium, copper) ink on plexiglass, oil on wood, 8.3 x 32.5 x 30.5 inches. Collection Gemeentemuseum The Hague.

Although this New Babylon never grew larger than Constant’s sketches and scale models, his ideas have been influential in thinking about the possibilities and advantages of more dynamic and labyrinthine structures (building, urban planning, design, etc.). According to Constant, the biggest advantage would be that everybody should have access to everything, and everybody would become creative (he calls it Homo ludens, after Johan Huizinga) as a consequence of the ongoing occurrence of unexpected situations (hence why they called themselves situationists).

These situationist ideas can be seen as the inducement of phenomena like creative and dynamic workplaces or housing that we see nowadays. New Babylon can also be seen as a metaphor for the automation and (digital) globalization Michel Serres describes in Thumbelina:

Thumbelina has watched the number of blue collar workers diminish; the new technologies will cause the number of white collar workers diminish as well.[1]

The innovation: the ease of access that has been given to Thumbelina, and to the entire world, their pockets filled with all the knowledge in their smart phones. Their bodies can finally leave the cave, where attention, silence, and their curved spines once bound them to their chairs like chains. Even if we force them to go back, we can no longer sit still in their seats. They have become, as they say, disruptive.[2]

It is exactly this diminishing and disruption that Constant proclaimed fifty years ago. I wonder if this liberation of bodies that Serres describes paves the way for such a radical nomadism as Constant advocates. Will nomadism once be the norm, while it was and often still is reason for suspicion?

Clearly, as Cresswell observes, the definition of mobility as deviance derives from “the positive valuation of roots in a place-bound, property-owning society” where “mobility … appears to be a kind of superdeviance … [which] disturbs the whole notion that the world can be segmented into clearly defined places … [and] becomes a basic form of disorder and chaos – constantly defined as transgression and trespass.”[3]

And, if nomadism becomes the norm – if the ‘suitcase’ becomes the home for many – what will collective identities look like? Nowadays these identities are often still linked to a geographical fixed space:

In his analysis of Czech discourses of national identity, Ladislav Holy argues that they are characterized by a sense that the solidarity of the nation’s members “springs from their all recognizing the same space as their home and from all of them inhabiting that home”.[4]

I think future collective identities will more and more become digital: we recognize others with the same ‘taste’ (as composed for us by algorithms on social media) as being members of our ‘tribe’. Our heimat is not geographical per se (perhaps not even material), but a performed (linguistic) construction (online). This virtual (collective) identity is illusive – it seems like New Babylon: fluent and dynamic, but this identity is rather fixed. Maybe we become more and more insensible for ‘traditional’ stories about a collective past or fixed rituals in the material world. It might be that our material experience really becomes dynamic and mobile (as Constant dreamed), but that our digital cultural identities become the new strict heimats as nations once were.

Constant and Serres converge on ideas of material deterrorialization, but I think new digital territories are emerging which give the illusion of freedom (just like nations do) but are very fixed. When will the digital become nomadic?

Morley, David. Home Territories. Media, mobility and identity. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.

Serres, Michel. Thumbelina. The Culture and Technology of Millenials. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015.

[1] Michel Serres, Thumbelina. The Culture and Technology of Millenials, translated by Daniel W. Smith (London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 50-51.

[2] Serres, 34.

[3] Tim Cresswell, quoted in David Morley, Home Territories. Media, mobility and identity (London/New York: Routledge, 2000), 33.

[4] Morley, 34.

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