«Jani Vuolteenaho Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Sami Kolamo University of Tampere In this article, a critical attempt is made to read the ...»
A Debordian Reading of
Finnish Namescapes and
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies
University of Tampere
In this article, a critical attempt is made to read the language of contemporary
urban boosterism – its eulogistic adjectives and slogans, escapist evocations
in nomenclature, nostalgic narratives, etc. – through the lens of The Society of
the Spectacle (1995, orig. 1967), Guy Debord’s controversial theoretico-political manifesto. Through discussion of empirical examples, the authors shed light on different types of in-situ landscape texts in Finnish and English cities. In the former national context, culturally escapist and non-native names given to leisurescapes and technoscapes have mushroomed over the last quarter century. While this process represents a semi-hegemonic rather than hegemonic trend, many developers’ reliance on the “independent” representational power of language has substantially reshaped naming practices in the non-Anglophone country. The analysis of different types of promotional texts at England’s major soccerscapes evinces the co-presence of nostalgic evocations of local history amidst the hypercommodification of space. Arguably, the culturally self-sufficient, traditionaware representational strategies in current English football stem from pressure from fans, the country’s status as the cradle of modern football, and a privileged possibility to promote the game’s “native” meanings via a globally-spoken language.
Finally, this article addresses the pros and cons of using the spectacle theoretical framework to analyse critically language-based urban boosterism and branding under the current conditions of neoliberal urbanism.
Jani Vuolteenaho, Lieven Ameel, Andrew Newby & Maggie Scott (eds.) 2012 Language, Space and Power: Urban Entanglements Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences 13.
Helsinki: Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. 132–158.
Vuolteenaho & Kolamo Introduction Any closer look at today’s “superlative cities” (Beauregard 2003) suggests that not only eye-catching sights in the strict sense, but also various types of textual, aural and participatory elements and messages (from exotic evocations and memorial texts to drama-enhancing music and orchestrated cheers) count as the spectacularisation of space.1 However, preoccupation with the issues of visuality has characterised spectacle theory and its urban applications until today (e.g.
Pinder 2000; Kellner 2003). Following Guy Debord (1995; orig. 1967) and other Situationists, the concept of spectacle has been most (in)famously used as a rubric for the “totality” of (visual) enticements in capitalist-consumerist societies. In this line of critical theory, commodification, advertising and mass-mediatisation are seen as forces that colonise people’s everyday wants under the ceaseless stream of the images of idealised bodies, activities and spaces. By the same token, the analysts of post-industrial urban spectacles have been characteristically preoccupied with mega-size events and architectural landmarks created for spectators (Ley & Olds 1988; Harvey 1989, 66–98; Kearns 1993; Gotham 2005; Davis 2006; Hetherington 2007; Frank & Steets 2010). Marxist critics absorbing insights from Debord’s (1995) The Society of the Spectacle, in particular, have emphasised the nature of contemporary capitalist developments as the visually enthralling expressions of a profit-hungry neoliberal attention economy that are regularly “accompanied by a sort of spatial gentrification, with the expulsion of the poorest people from the intervention areas” (e.g. Fessler Vaz & Berenstein 2009, 249–250; Krupar & Al forthcoming).
While the aim of this article is not to question the significance of visuality in urban spectacle-making, its approach differs considerably from the aforementioned research orientations by re-focussing attention on the language of contemporary urban boosterism and, specifically, its textually evoked thought-images (cf. Barthes 1980; Benjamin 1999; Weigel 1996, 49–60). It is suggested here that spectacle theory can open conceptually fruitful and empirically applicable tools that combine critical insights from social and spatial theory with the study of the concrete powerrelated workings of language in contemporary cities. Debord (1995, 15) himself held that “to analyze the spectacle means talking its language to some degree”, and by way of a linguistic metaphor, saw “the monologue of self-praise” as a defining feature of the spectacle (ibid., 19).2 In the current neoliberal context of advanced spectacularisation (Debord 1998, 3) and professionalised place branding
1 On a generalised theory of spectacularisation as attention-seeking, see Crary 2000.
2 In fact, for the avant-gardist art movement, Letterist International, to which Guy Debord belonged in 1952–1957, and somewhat less specifically for its politically radicalised heir apparent Situationist International, too, experiments with anti-spectacular language-uses were among key concerns (see e.g. Sadler 1999: 95–103; Khayati 2006; Murray 2008). More recently, Giorgio Agamben has also ruminated on the spectacularity of the “words [that] work on behalf of the ruling organization of life” from a Debord- and Heidegger-influenced philosophical angle (Murray 2008, 173–175; see also Murray 2010).
Language, Space and Power: Urban Entanglements
practices (e.g. Eisenschitz 2010; Krupar & Al forthcoming; Kolamo & Vuolteenaho forthcoming), there are well-grounded reasons to assume that marketers and other powerful urban actors, increasingly calculatedly, deploy language to “imagineer” (in some cases more plausibly and successfully than in others) local landscapes as global magnets for consumption, tourist flows and investments. Arguably, what is at issue is an acute but under-explored cultural ramification of the neoliberal commodification of space, with profound consequences for the symbolic construction of places as well as people’s everyday language-based meaningmaking in today’s image-dominated world.
To analyse the processes and contexts of textual spectacularisation, and simultaneously to critically interrogate the significance of language as a promotional tool, this article distils relevant conceptual notions from The Society of the Spectacle and applies these to the study of in-situ landscape texts in Finnish and English cities. After Debord (1995, 19), we insist, first of all, on the monologues of selfpraise as indispensable components in the textual spectacularisation of space. In this direct mode of touting a landscape as a “saleable” commodity, place promotion takes advantage of exaggerations, superlatives (the “newest”, the “largest”, etc.) and otherwise straightforwardly boosterist language to proclaim the high status of a location. Secondly, by taking its cue from Debord’s (1995, 120) provocative terminology on the “interchangeability” of places, the article analyses the languagebased weaving of semiotic associations as a spectacularisation strategy that is closely akin to cultural theming (see Gottdiener 2001). As former studies on “themed environments” conducted especially in North America have shown (ibid.; Hopkins 1990; Sorkin 1992), the associative-semiotic means to enhance the recognisability and market-appeal of landscapes fall into several subcategories. Inter alia, this spectacularisation strategy can operate through the spatio-temporally escapist evocations of better-known and better-esteemed places (see on the landscapes of elsewhereness: Hopkins 1990) and times (fabulous pasts, futuristic visions) or more
or ethereal ideals (e.g. “cultural universals” such as power, richness, speed, happiness and authenticity), not forgetting that the medium is a crucial part of the message; some languages are more credible than others in the global market place (e.g. Crystal 2004; Shohamy & Gorter 2009). Thirdly, this article probes into the seemingly contradictory temporal characteristics of spectacularisation.
Intriguingly, spectacularisation has been equated both with “global simultaneity” (based on the instant circulation of the same spatio-temporal representations on the planetary scale) and “the break with historical time”, on the one hand, and on the other, the commodified and ceremonial staging of heroicised pasts (e.g.
Debord 1995, 42–46, 120; Augé 1995; Pinder 2000; Hetherington 2008).3 Lastly, inspired by the well-known Debordian distinction (e.g Debord 1995, 41, 46; 1998, 8) 3 Debord’s (1995) own equivocalness on the issue is telling: while he saw spectacularisation as a process for which “nothing is stable” (ibid., 46), on other occasions he nostalgically noted, for instance, a paradox of the destruction of the old city centres and the turning of “the same ancients sections… into museums” (ibid., 42–43; see also Pinder 2000; Bonnett 2006).
between the ideologically and symbolically diffuse and concentrated forms of the spectacle, this article traces both multi-voiced and univocal manifestations of the spectacularisation of space across textualised landscapes.
Concisely stated, a common thread in different textual modes of the spectacularisation of space is arguably their “independent existence” as representations (Debord 1995, 17). At the same time, whether a directly eulogistic or associative spectacularisation strategy is in question, the aim of developers is to make a landscape’s sign-value (see also Lash & Urry 1994) imaginatively “bigger” by means of language – an inclination which we refer to here as “bigness fetish”.
Equally crucial for this article’s methodological design, the above-referred forms of textual spectacularisation are not deployed indiscriminately, but as context-specific tools of place marketing. In actual urban settings, variable combinations of languagebased tools can be used by developers to facilitate the attractive appearance of landscapes in the eyes and minds of targeted groups. Here, the focus will be on three basic repertoires: (i) superlative words, slogans and depictions; (ii) names, narratives and other elements of language through which different types of spatiotemporal and cultural motifs are conjured up and associated with a promoted place; and (iii) linguistic choices in favour of specific globally and/ or locally spoken languages.
To analyse tentatively the functions of spectacular textuality in two different geographical settings, and pave the way for case-specific and more systematically comparative analyses on the subject in other national and urban contexts, this article re-interprets material collected in two separate research projects. The former examined the politics of urban place naming in Finland (Vuolteenaho & Ainiala 2009) while the latter examined spectacle-making in English football (Kolamo & Vuolteenaho 2011a; Kolamo & Vuolteenaho 2011b). In the comparatively economically-peripheral and non-Anglophone Finnish context, we focus on paradigmatically spectacular instances of place naming and associated marketing statements (logos, slogans, etc.) across the different types of consumer- or business-targeted urban developments. In the context of England, characterised by stronger economic and linguistic ties to North America and other hubs of the world economy, we examine a broader range of promotional texts (from advertisements and stadium names to nostalgic evocations) found at the stadiums of prominent football clubs. Importantly in both study contexts, we remain simultaneously alert to co-existing textual practices that seem to run counter to the aforementioned hallmarks of textual spectacularisation. On the basis of associated media reports, advertisements, Internet-pages, photographs and above all observation data collected in each country (in Finland on a continuing basis since 2007; in England during two week-long fieldwork periods in 2009 and 2011), our explorations in both
case studies revolve around the following research questions:
Language, Space and Power: Urban Entanglements
• To what extent does superlative self-praise characterise the promotion of the analysed landscape-types in Finland and England?