The invention of circulation

Enlightened planners wanted the city in its very design to function like a healthy body, freely flowing as well as possessed of clear skin. Since the beginnings of the Baroque era, urban planners had thought about making cities in terms of efficient circulation of the people on the city's main streets. The medical imagery of life-giving circulation gave a new meaning to the Baroque emphasis of motion. Instead of planning streets for the sake of ceremonies of movement toward an object, as did the Baroque planner, the Enlightenment planner made motion an end in itself.

(Sennett 1994:263-264)

Alongside the emergence of the notion of "metabolism" in the natural and social sciences (an emergence not wholly disassociated with the rising "metabolic rift" caused by industrialization and urbanization), the notion of "circulation" began to gain greater and wider currency. For example, the idea of "water circulation", that water piped into the city must leave the city by its sewers is not older than the nineteenth century (in the west). Circulating water, following a given path and finally returning to its source, remained foreign to western urban imaginations, spatial representations and engineering systems until then. Modern urbanization, highly dependent on the mastery of circulating flows, was linked with the representation of cities as consisting of and functioning through complex networks of circulatory systems (Kaika and Swyngedouw 1999).

Before the "discovery" of circulatory systems, the movement of water was seen merely as evaporation: the separation of the "spirit" from the "water" (Goubert 1989). This view that things happen, appear, or disappear through "extraction" was widely held before circulatory views began to replace them. In chemistry, for example, phlogiston theory of the seventeenth century, formulated by Johann Becher and still defended by Priestley, rested on the basis of extractionist views. Such theories prevailed until Antoine Lavoisier's eighteenth-century discovery, which postulated chemical reactions as (metabolic) transfigurations or re-arrangements of components that in the process produced qualitatively new assemblages, but in which nothing was lost or disappeared. Together with phlogiston theory, the representation of the respiratory system, plant growth, the Physiocrats' view of the production of material wealth from the given natural conditions of the soil, even the Malthusian unidirectional flow of food, all indicate the incapacity of early post-renaissance people to conceive of "circulation" as an infinite cyclical process.

When William Harvey (1628) promulgated his ideas of the double circulation of blood in the vascular system of the human body in 1628, a revolutionary insight came into being which would begin to permeate and dominate everyday life, engineering, and intellectual thought for centuries to come, both metaphorically and materially.6 By the end of the century, medical practice had accepted the idea of the circulatory (metabolic) system, leading to a profound re-definition of the body. In the nineteenth century, the metabolic circulation of chemical substances and organic matter (see von Liebig's contribution above) became increasingly accepted, and would form the basis of modern ecology. The "circulation" and the "metabolism" of matter became fused together as the two central metaphors through which to capture processes of socio-natural change, and of modernity itself.

Indeed, the use of the word "circulation" to refer to the movement of money within a national economy established itself within a generation of William Harvey's claim (Harvey 1999 [1628]). Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), for example, had already compared the problems of a government that was unable to raise sufficient tax revenue to "an ague; wherein, the fleshy parts being congealed, or by venomous matter obstructed, the veins which by their natural course empty themselves into the heart, are not, as they ought to be, supplied from the arterie, whereby there succeedeth at first a cold contraction, and trembling of the limbs; and afterwards a hot, and strong endeavour of the heart, to force the passage of the blood" (cited in Harvey 1999 [1628]). Francis Bacon, in his essay Of Empire, wrote that merchants "are vena porta; and if they flourish not, a kingdom may have good limbs, but will have empty veins, and nourish little" (cited in Harvey 1999 [1628]).

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the term "circulation" had become established in many sciences, referring to the flow of sap in plants and the circulation of matter in chemical reactions (Teich 1982). "Circulation" becomes a dominant metaphor after the French Revolution: ideas, newspapers, gossip and—after 1880 —traffic, air, and power "circulate". From about 1750, wealth and money begin to "circulate" and are spoken of as though they were liquids, flowing incessantly to become a process of accumulation and growth. Society begins to be imagined as a system of conduits (Sennett 1994). Montesquieu in Lettres Persanes (p. 117) speaks of "[T]he more 'circulation' the more wealth" and in l'Esprit des Lois of "[Multiplying wealth by increasing circulation". Rousseau (1766) refers to "[T]his useful and fecund circulation that enlivens all society's labour" and to "a circulation of labour as one speaks of the circulation of the money" (cited in Illich 1986). Of course, by the mid-nineteenth century, the flâneur—dandy, artist, detective, and stroller, the favourite literary characters of Baudelaire and, later, with Walter Benjamin, of the passages—has been well represented and theorized as an object of circulation within this urban space. Of course, in the process, "circulation" became less and less identified with closed circular movement, and more with change, growth, and accumulation. Similar to the way von Liebig discovered the mechanisms of metabolism through considering the "metabolic rift", "circulation" gained greater socio-ecological currency exactly when it became seen as an integral part of a process of change and transformation.

Adam Smith and Karl Marx conceived of a capitalist economy as a metabolic system of circulating money and commodities, carried by and structured through social interactions and relations. Accumulation is dependent on the swiftness by which money circulates through society. Each hiccup, stagnation or interruption of circulation may unleash the infernal forces of devaluation, crisis and chaos. Society's wealth and the relationships of power on which wealth is constructed are seen as intrinsically bound up with and expressed by the "circulation speed" of money in all its forms (capital, labour, commodities). Later, David Harvey (1985) would analyze the circulation of capital and its urbanization as a perpetual mobile channelled through a myriad of ever-changing production, communication and consumption networks. The development and consolidation of circulating money as the basis of material life, and the relations of domination and exclusion through which the circulation of money is organized and maintained shapes this "urbanization of capital".

By the mid-nineteenth century some British architects also begin to speak of the inner city mobilizing the metaphor of circulation. Sir Edwin Chadwick formulated the ideology of circulating waters effectively for the first time in his 1842 Report into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. In his report, Chadwick imagined the new city as "a social body through which water must incessantly circulate, leaving it again as dirty sewage". Water ought to "circulate" through the city without interruption to wash it of sweats and excrements and wastes. The brisker this flow, the fewer stagnant pockets that breed congenital pestilence there are and the healthier the city will be. Unless water constantly circulates through the city, pumped in and channelled out, the interior space imagined by Chadwick can only stagnate and rot. This representation of urban space as constructed in and through perpetually circulating flows of water is conspicuously similar to imagining the city as a vast reservoir of perpetually circulating money. Viollet-le-Duc introduced circulation as a bodily metaphor for the organization of the urban villa. In fact, Chadwick's papers were published under the title The Health of Nations during the centenary commemoration for Adam Smith (Chadwick 1887). Like the individual body and bourgeois society, the city was now also described as a network of pipes and conduits. The brisker the flow, the greater the wealth, the health and hygiene of the city would be. Just as William Harvey redefined the body by postulating the circulation of the blood, so Chadwick redefined the city by "discovering" its needs to be constantly washed (Illich 1986:45). New principles of city planning and policing were emerging based upon the medical metaphors of "circulation" and "flow". The health of the body became the comparison against which the greatness of cities and states was to be measured. The "veins" and "arteries" of the new urban design were to be freed from all possible sources of blockage (Sennett 1994:262-265; Corbin 1994).

With circulation as a metabolic process firmly established as practice and as solid representation of the process of socio-ecological change, attention quickly moved from metabolism and circulation to "speed" or, in other words, to the "movement of movement". Metabolic circulation of the kind analyzed by Marx, and now firmly rooted in generalized commodity production, exchange, and consumption, is increasingly subject to the socially constituted dynamics of a capitalist market economy in which the alpha and omega of the metabolic circulation of socio-ecological assemblages is the desire to circulate money as capital. As Douglas (2004) notes:

Not only now would political rationality understand the motion of matter, and of bodies, it would seek above all to perfect the mechanisms of producing it. The "movement-of-movement", or "speed", as a technical achievement, emerges at this time (the early nineteenth century) as a societal principle, reordering the whole of the modern world. In the most radical way possible Virilio begins to answer the question of how efficiency was established in the modern urban landscape...The power of movement was subject to a spatial codification (in the city, in the workhouse, in the hospital, in the manufactory). By the beginnings of the nineteenth century this "codification" had been achieved, and a second "reordering" could now be effected. This reordering, rather than charting the middle ground between rapidity and stasis, aimed to "release" the full productive, dynamic efficiency of the (national) population in and through time. Motion had emerged as the destiny and law of a new politics of order. The full equivalence of Virilio's "metabolic vehicles" to Foucault's "bearers of order" becomes clear. Dromological power—or in the words of Foucault, "capillary power"—had emerged as the practical basis and first principle of the "free society" and "coded individual" established simultaneously with the apparatus of modern "governmentality". Mobility, in other words, had become simultaneously the means to liberation and the means to domination; the "accumulation of men" running simultaneously with "the accumulation of movement", and—one might add—the "accumulation of capital".

For Paul Virilio (1986), the freedom for people to come and go was replaced by an obligation to move. The creation of urban space as space of movement of people, commodities, and information radically altered the choreography of the city. Places and spaces became less and less shared, motion devalues or threatens to devalue place; connections are lost, identities reconfigured, and attachments broken down. While the urbanization of nature led to a spiralling accumulation of unstable socio-natural assemblages, the components of these assemblages became radically disassociated from their geographical origin as speed, movement and mobility ironically rendered the fields of vision and connections more opaque, transient, and partial. Although the city turned into a metabolic vehicle, the rift between the social and the natural became engrained deeper than ever in the modern urban imagination.

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