Schismotopia: Environmentalism, Schismogenesis, and Heterotopia in Austin, Texas

Description

Using a combination of semiotic, ecological, and spatial frameworks, this photoessay explores how the city of Austin, Texas can be said to function as a schismotopia; a heterotopia that is simultaneously thriving and toxic in a way that denotes a complementary process of schismogenesis. In one obvious sense, Austin is heterotopian in that it has a long established, popular reputation as a “weird”, young, and progressive oasis in a sea of Texas conservatism. But behind this veil of distinction there lies another, more insidious contradiction. Austin regularly tops the charts on the best US cities in which to live, work, and to visit, coming in at #1 on the US News and World Report’s list of Best Places to Live in the USA for the past three years. However, Austin is also one of the most segregated and socially stratified cities in the US. And as a result, Austin is the only city of its size in the US whose black and brown population has been in a steady and appreciable decline for decades. In this project, I will utilize this contradiction to explore the differential toxicity of place, working with local activists, scholars, and residents of Austin to visualize those other and/or “othered” spaces that both enable and disturb Austin’s more utopian representations.

Building off of last year’s concept of Static, this photo essay continues to think semiotically about social and cultural forms of toxicity to explore how place can become schismogenetic. These series of images enable me to put forth that place, or the lived dimension of space, does not simply emerge in relation to either material space or to the hegemonic representations of that space, nor in equal relation to both; it is not simply triadic, but rather a third. That is, place is a subjective phenomenon that emerges, phenomenologically, through collective relations to the relationship between the materiality of a space and its hegemonic representation. To put this in Gregory Bateson’s terminology, place emerges at the trito-order in the way that people “learn to learn to receive signals,” or “in the changes whereby an individual comes to expect his [or her, or their] world to be structured in one way rather than an-other” (1987, 184). In their toxic form, certain changes in expectation between subjects or groups of subjects become schismogenetic in nature, meaning that they take on the quality of progressive differentiation. This photo essay explores how environmentalism, as a mode of placemaking, has exacerbated a schismogenetic relation between the Austin’s white and non-white population.

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Schismotopia: Environmentalism, Schismogenesis, and Heterotopia in Austin, Texas

Using a combination of semiotic, ecological, and spatial frameworks, I explore how the city of Austin, Texas can be said to function as a schismotopia: a heterotopia that is simultaneously thriving and toxic in a way that denotes a complementary process of schismogenesis. In one obvious sense, Austin is heterotopian in that it has a long established, popular reputation as a “weird”, young, and progressive oasis in a sea of Texas conservatism. But behind this veil of distinction there lies another, more insidious contradiction. Austin regularly tops the charts on the best US cities in which to live, work, and to visit, coming in at #1 on the US News and World Report’s list of Best Places to Live in the USA for the past three years. However, Austin is also one of the most segregated and socially stratified cities in the US. And as a result, Austin is the only city of its size in the US whose black and brown population has been in a steady and appreciable decline for decades.

Building off of last year’s concept of Static, this photo essay continues to think semiotically about social and cultural forms of toxicity to explore how place can become schismogenetic. These series of images enable me to put forth that place, or the lived dimension of space, does not simply emerge in relation to either material space or to the hegemonic representations of that space, nor in equal relation to both; it is not simply triadic, but rather a third. That is, place is a subjective phenomenon that emerges, phenomenologically, through collective relations to the relationship between the materiality of a space and its hegemonic representation. To put this in Gregory Bateson’s terminology, place emerges at the trito-order in the way that people “learn to learn to receive signals,” or “in the changes whereby an individual comes to expect his [or her, or their] world to be structured in one way rather than an-other” (1987, 184). In their toxic form, certain changes in expectation between subjects or groups of subjects become schismogenetic in nature, meaning that they take on the quality of progressive differentiation. This photo essay explores how environmentalism, as a mode of placemaking, has exacerbated a schismogenetic relation between the Austin’s white and non-white population.

Best for Whom?

This image was produced by Tane Ward of Equilibrio Norte to provoke thought and conversation about the racism that is embedded in Austin's contemporary mode of placemaking.

Staying true to its “weird” reputation, Austin, Texas is a place full of contradiction and complications. On the one hand, the Austin community is praised as one of the most environmentally conscious cities, not only in Texas, but in the United States (World Resources Institute 2004). It’s numerous city-programs—including the Water/Wastewater Department’s Dillo Dirt, Keep Austin Beautiful, Water Conservation, Austin Recycles, Energy Conservation, Public Works, Green Builders, and the Propane Program—have won state and national recognition, contributing to Austin’s international recognition as an environmental leader (Gunn 2004). It has also remained relatively strong, economically, throughout the post-2008 depression, ranking at the top of the list of fastest growing cities in the country in 2011 (Busch 2017). On the other hand, Austin is one of the most unequal, racially-segregated cities in the US. Austin’s black communities have been repeatedly displaced over the course of the city’s development (Tretter 2016), leading to a continuous loss of population share every decade since the 1920's (Busch 2017). The city also stands out in the location of poverty. Efforts to keep the downtown “clean” and “green” have inspired strong networks of community policing of poverty and homelessness, forcing much of the homeless population into the suburbs. In East Austin, where numerous neighborhoods are currently undergoing gentrification, the poverty level of black residents is regularly 2,000 times greater than other local whites (Busch 2017).

Legacies of Segregation

This image was produced by Tane Ward of Equilibrio Norte to provoke thought and conversation about the racism that is embedded in Austin's contemporary mode of placemaking.

The segmented nature of Austin’s social space corresponds, to a large degree, with the history of its racial geography. Environmental risks are disproportionately distributed to East Austin, the area of town which, in the 1928 Master Plan, became designated as the segregated “negro district.” Since this designation, East Austin has been consistently subjected to environmental hazards.

Originally, the East Austin community was upset that the city used tax incentives to attract businesses that would bring little to no benefit to the East Austin community in which they were located (Tretter 2016). However, this focus took a notable turn after the discovery of chemical leaks and the illegal disposal of industrial waste from Austin’s Motorola Plant in 1982 and 1984. These events made local community leaders aware of the potential risks presented by having these facilities so close to home. Small sections of Central East Austin have also recently been targeted for clean-up and redevelopment, raising the property values in the area and, once again, forcing members of the black and brown community from their homes and residences. Many of Austin's liberal, progressives still consider this gentrification to be in accordance to the natural or logical development of a city. In their view, East Austin’s Desirable Development Zones are both dilapidated and cheap, and therefore the locations most suitable and in need of redevelopment. The incisive response of many local environmental justice groups is to point out that environmental racism was the cause of the dilapidation and poverty in the first place.

Asymmetrical power relations determine which environmental problems become visible as problems and therein capable of being addressed. As Tretter points out, though the ideology of smart growth rests three equal legs (economy, environment, and society), in Austin these legs have split into two factions: an economic-environmental interpretation of urban sustainability, and an environmental-social interpretation of environmental justice (2016).

Equity Doesnt Mean Extra

The top image in this combination is the “go to” slide for the City of Austin when they introduce their conception of equity. I've been bringing this image up during my interviews to see how it is read by more critical audiences. One of my interlocutors, Kenneth Thompson, associated this image with the national, hegemonic discourse of the city that excludes the vernacular discourses taking place in the homes of black families. “Right, like I need help, right, and so who does that really make feel better about that, right? … when they put that thing together, they probably thought, it looks good and it probably gave them the responses they thought they was gonna get. But if they did go out and add more people and add some deliberative thought to those things, right, then perhaps someone’d say, ‘Hey man, wait a minute, you’re makin me feel like I’m in need all the time.’”

In Kenneth's words, Austin is a very “liberal” place, but not a “progressive” place. The distinction he is making here is that a “liberal” place can utilize control over the public discourse to rationalize and get away with whatever agenda they have. A “progressive” place, by contrast, considers the consequences of development and policy actions for all involved parties, including the meanings and the values communicated through those actions.

Another interlocutor, Dr. Tane Ward, made similar distinction between saying things with language as apposed to images. In an interview he commented that images are "more profound than the written word. And this is why I think that people are allowed to say whatever they want, but they are not allowed to show whatever they want." This was Tane's response to the image: "which is exactly what I’m saying. You can say it... These words are good [referring to the text in the image]. This is precisely what we’re talking about… [but] people see this and they intrinsically are like, 'hmmm, I get what’s going on. They wanna give extra shit to black people.'”

The contrast between text and image in this slide bears a symmetry to the dissonance between the City’s actions and the national discourse on Austin. Austin's progressive reputation simply does not align with the lived experiences of many of Austin’s black and brown residents. This is one way of saying that, although Austin’s white and non-white populations simultaneously inhabit the same “space,” they live in and experience the city as very different "places."

Austin’s white population relates to the relationship between the ontological and discursive space of Austin in a way that enables them to assimilate their experiences into the hegemonic discourse about the city. That is, their experience does not incite Third Order Learning, or a change in their expectations for the way their city is or should be structured (Bateson 1987). Even the self-referential critique of Austin’s history, which is included in the text embedded in the image, feeds into this hegemonic perception of Austin as a socially just and progressive place. In Tane's words, "you know, 'yea, if I talk about anti-racism, I don’t have to f***ing do anything.' When in fact... they’re really promoting the continuation and even the augmentation of racism in terms of how resources are distributed."

Being born and raised in a poor neighborhood in East Austin, Kenneth was in one of the first groups of Austin’s black residents to be relocated to the “projects” in North Austin. He understands this move as effectively depriveing him and other low-income children of access to numerous resources, including local black teachers and role models. “See there was no longer no teachers there, there was no longer no doctors there, there was no longer no one that you could go and talk to that can give you a different perspective on life. … That’s part of the economic injustice, and part of the environmental injustice that you have to deal with also. And so, to some degree, what that also caused was early death. I mean, I’m 58 years old and I bet I can name you 30 people that I grew up with, that died before 30 years old. That’s not something that everybody can do, and that’s not something that everybody should be able to do. But when you think about the disparities, that’s what disparities lead to.”

Listening to stories like Kenneth’s helps to illustrate how this sort of superficially progressive image actually participates in the erasure and exclusion of black experiences. This image does so in the following ways: 1) the visualization seems to suggest that black people need “more” assistance to create an even playing field, rather than simply taking away or offsetting the present and historical structural barriers to self-determination; 2) the metaphor of height (a “natural” difference in ability) is unfit to represent these structural disparities in the quality of life between Austin’s black and white population; and 3) it is simply inappropriate to represent disparities that result from life-course changing, structural violence with primary colored boxes, apples, and stick figures.

The second image, by contrast, suggests that the City has and continues to actively participate in preventing racial equity. And it uses visual metaphors that simply hit harder than terms like "structural violence" to get at some of the difference between Austin’s progressive discourse and it’s liberal reality. The bottom image also gets rid of “height” as a metaphor for inequality and replaces it with symbols of physical (arm restraints) and legal (“Whites Only”) barriers imposed by the City.

What becomes apparent when you talk with Austin’s local black and brown populations is that they do have a dissonant relation to the relationship between Austin’s discursive and ontological space, and this has caused a change in their expectations (i.e. Third Order learning). As with all Third-Order learning, this change in expectation has the potential to be beneficial or deleterious, tonic or toxic.

Attempting to make Austin residents feel good and maintain the city’s progressive reputation may seem quite reasonable, but the dissonance between that representation and the situation of the city's black population has detrimental effects on the psycho-social dynamics of local black families. It presents young black folk with a double bind. They are being excluded from a conversation about inclusivity. I'll quote Kenneth again, “Two things happen, we start to feel like, first of all, that our voice doesn’t exist, right? And then you start trying to figure out, to some degree, why should you get involved? Why should you get involved when it appears that those who should be the architects of fairness, right, are still imbalanced with their media and with their messages?”

Kenneth went on to argue that it takes a special skill to survive in Austin as a black person, one that reflects a certain positive form of Third Order learning. You have to become good at taking in the bullshit, digesting it, and making it into something you can use to improve the situation for yourself and your family. Which is obviously a very difficult skill to cultivate. 

Schismotopia Diagram

This diagram represents an attempt to think semiotically about "place" in Austin in terms of thirds (Kockelman 2010), of a relation to a relation (Serres 1982), and as a process of trito-order learning (Bateson 1987). Aucoin (2017) emphasizes the analytic distinction between “space” and “place” where the former is understood as a medium that can be materially, structurally, or symbolically altered to take on certain meanings for different groups. The latter, by contradistinction, is defined by how a space is lived or, to be more precise, how it “comes into being through human experience, dreaming, perception, imaginings, and sensation, and within which a sense of being in the world can develop” (Aucoin 2017, 396). This distinction creates a useful binary to think with but, as toxics often elude binary thinking (Fortun 2011), I place this dialectic relation in relation to another.

Lefebvre’s now classic triadic model of social space made use of its perceived, conceived, and lived dimensions. Using this model, space, in Aucoin’s sense, can be further broken down into a dialectic between Lefebvre’s first two dimensions: the perceived and the conceived. These dimensions were derived from the structural linguistic notions of signified and signifier. But, as a Marxist humanist committed to developing theory of political practice, Lefebvre bristled at this linguistic approach’s denial of the revolutionary potential of art and other non-linguistic forms of meaning and signification. He therefore introduced “lived space” as a third term that set the dialectic off balance and allowed for temporality and difference to be incorporated into spatial structure.

While this “third term” does indeed create room for politics, given our focus on toxicity, I am interested in how these relations can become progressive in ways that are deleterious. I will put forth that place, or the lived dimension of space, does not simply emerge in relation to either the perceived or the conceived, or in equal relation to both; it is not simply triadic, but rather a third. That is, place is a subjective phenomenon that emerges, phenomenologically, through collective relations to the relationship between the ontological and the discursive dimensions of social space.

For a closer look at a breakdown of the concepts that build up to Schismotopia, see this photo essay.

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February 2, 2020

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James Adams. 2 February 2020, "Schismotopia: Environmentalism, Schismogenesis, and Heterotopia in Austin, Texas", Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 2 March 2020, accessed 18 May 2022. https://centerforethnography.org/content/schismotopia-environmentalism-schismogenesis-and-heterotopia-austin-texas-0