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Reinhold Martin, Mediators: Aesthetics, Politics and the City

Caterina Quaglio
p. 209-211
Bibliographical reference

Reinhold Martin, Mediators: Aesthetics, Politics and the City, Minneapolis - London, University of Minnesota Press, 60 pp. - November 2014 – Paperback: $7.95 - ISBN 978-0-8166-9687-1 / e-book: $4.95 - ISBN 978-1-4529-4455-5

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1What is a city, today? The answer to this question is both the main issue and the main target of Reinhold Martin’s book. The complexity of the subject is clear, as well as the many concerns raised by the literature. Nevertheless, the author declared interest moves from the recognition of an aestheticized confusion linked to the very definition of the city (undetermined, indeed, by its nature). Consequently, the focus is placed on the usually underestimated connection between aesthetic and political economy, crucial to the comprehension of the contemporary globalized city. Through the adoption of this particular approach, the reader is asked to step back, taking into account the rules rather than the contents.

2The book is structured in an introduction and five public and pedagogical essays, many of whom previously published. Public because of the subject, namely the city as a topic to be investigated. Pedagogical because of the origin and the form of the reflections. In fact, the original setting of the thinking developed in the book is the seminar Philosophies of the City held by Martin at Columbia University. As a result, the published essays intentionally maintain the form of shared discussion about cities. The vocabulary employed by the author is the one of media theory, political theory and aesthetics. And, together with the heterogeneity of the sources employed, it underlines the preferred interdisciplinary and theoretical approach.

3The common thread running through the chapters are the mediators. Martin’s mediators are not merely media, in the sense of technological instruments or systems, neither mediations reducible to the logic of capital. They take a multiplicity of forms, in each essay specific: «statistical reports, urban-rural transactions, slum relocation schemes, iconic buildings, iron cages and steel shells, social housing, ruined libraries, satellites, or the rough, reddish landscape of Mars». According to this view, the mediators in the book are both concrete technical, infrastructural and social systems and the framework delimiting the possibilities of action and understanding. In short, they are the principle vehicle of the massive cracks (and the consequent fissures and bridges) of today’s cities.

4The first chapter, entitled ‘City, Country, World’, moves from the UN-habitat warning about the increasing percentage of urban dwellers. Starting from the official quantitative data, Martin puts forward a critic reflection, challenging the common concepts of limits and numbers. Thus, assuming that cities are not defined anymore by boundaries and enclosures, he argues that the faith in numerical imaginaries is supposed to be put in perspective, accordingly to the fluidity and complexity of the limits within which counting. UN-Habitat reports process data provided by national states, each of which sets its own benchmarks to the counting. Taking his cue from this and other contradictions, Martin suggests not only questioning the theological value of maths, but he also warns of the (artificial) imaginaries that it is able to generate. Carrying on with the analysis, a number of related concepts that are usually taken for granted are tackled: the reciprocal identities rural-urban and the consequent evolution of the figure of the rural-urban poor; the legitimacy of the sovereign as the responsible of counting; the production of data held by new disciplines like urban planning and sociology. Enumeration is the framework common to all of them. And mediators are the instruments to make it effective.

5‘Financial Imaginaries’ gets to the hearth of the book subject by analysing the relationship between aesthetics and finance. Abstraction is the key concept of the chapter. On the one hand, it is the mental process, which links the representation of economy into financial (and social) imaginaries. On the other, it is the way to establish and guarantee the religiosity needed by the mechanism of the market, namely faith (indispensable to the credit system) and money. Precisely money draws the link between abstraction and objectification. Moreover, according to the author, architecture shares with money a unique property: they both present a structural absence of meanings, compensated by the promise of it. It is precisely in this promise of a perpetual enchantment made visible through artefacts, that money and architecture become mediators of the socio-aesthetic life of cities. It is no coincidence that developers and architectural signatures have born and risen together, since they are both indispensable elements in a network of cultural practices that works by means of abstraction and faith.

6‘The Thing about Cities’ develops in a precise setting. The essay puts forward ontological considerations about the city by following the modern history of Berlin in its gradual transition from the iron cage of the Cold War to the soft steel shell. Two main references are taken into account to question the ontological nature of the city as a thing. First, Bruno Latour and his studying about the Berlin Key, an exemplary thing of the city because of its peculiarity of being both a door lock and an information processor. Then, Friedrich Kittler, according to whom the city itself is a medium, a machine for processing, storing and transmitting information. For both scholars the city of Berlin represents the hardware. Nevertheless, while Latour speaks of hybrid networks of humans and non-humans, Kittler’s media mediates without commandants. However, neither one nor the other explains the softening of the architectural city’s hard shell. By contrast, Martin gives a place to these and other mediators in the historical evolution of contemporary Berlin, underlying their capability to act towards the establishment of the real estate development and the soft shell of neo-liberal humanist capital.

7In ‘Public and Common(s)’ the analysis starts again from a linguistic point of view. Private, public, common, they all deal with a set of concepts concerning the more general social. To develop the concept Martin offers an excursus of selected significant opinions. The starting point is Hanna Arendt’s view about the gradual fading of the distinction between public and private life into the amalgam of mass society. Then, it is mentioned Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere and its natural representations (cafés, press, media...) and the antithetical subaltern counter publics of Nancy Fraser. Finally, the voice is given to the Empire of Hardt and Negri and their collective subjectivities, entrusted of looking beyond the classical public and private definition. Martin directs the arguments to his personal conclusions: whatever they will be, future networks would necessarily include the legacy of the public realm, as a medium and as a message.

8The last essay, ‘Horizons of Thought’, is the most metaphorical and compromising. The satellite Voyager 1 (launched in 1977) left in 2012 the Solar System. This gives us a first impression of the horizon the author is dealing with, which correlates the human measure with untimely thoughts. Martin goes deeper into the concept through an analysis of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Fredric Jameson’s review. The science-fiction book series tells the story of the terraforming process consequent to the colonisation of Mars in 2026. Both on earth and on Mars, the grounders are facing with social and ethical problems closely tied to the actual reality: the recognition of the limits of science, the eventual abolition of money, politics of socio-economic apartheid, the housing question, the ecological issue, the relative value of a colonial frontier, and so on. Two are the messages delivered in the end by Martin. Firstly, the vocation of Utopia in revealing its unthinkability under present condition (moving the question to what we should do to make it thinkable). Secondly, the necessity of awaken planetary consciousness about the current issue of Anthropocene. To sum up, we have to focus where is the horizon to be able to look at it.

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Bibliographical reference

Caterina Quaglio, “Reinhold Martin, Mediators: Aesthetics, Politics and the CityArdeth, 1 | 2017, 209-211.

Electronic reference

Caterina Quaglio, “Reinhold Martin, Mediators: Aesthetics, Politics and the CityArdeth [Online], 1 | 2017, Online since 01 October 2017, connection on 22 February 2024. URL:

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About the author

Caterina Quaglio

Politecnico di Torino

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