Space of Flows

Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell. [Ch 6]

Considering the historical moment it speaks to, this was a not surprisingly influential book, particularly in terms of the conceptual vocabulary it developed: network society, megacities, metropolitan regions, informational city, Information Age, technopoles, and spaces of flows. If Manuel Castells can’t be credited with coining all these terms, he certainly popularized them. And he weaves them (networks them?) compellingly in his portrait of the Network Society. It’s the latter of these terms—the space of flows discussed in Chapter Six—that I am most interested in focusing on.

At the outset, Castells explains, “It is this complexity of the interaction between technology, society, and space that I shall address in the following pages” (408). He calls the space of flows a “spatial logic” and counterposes it to the logic the “space of places.” The dialectical tension of these logics is central to the broader workings of the Network Society. Much of the explanation, though empirical, also relies on techno-metaphors of circuitries, systems, command-control, levels, hierarchies, infrastructures, making the arguments seem both highly structural and techno-centric. In any case, the spaces of flows—and its coextensive networks—are the main conduits for power, whether expressed in economic, symbolic, and/or cultural manifestations.

A typical statement reads:

“…while the actual location of high-level centers in each period is critical for the distribution of wealth and power in the world, from the perspective of the spatial logic of the new system what matters is the versatility of its networks. The global city is not a place, but a process. A process by which centers of production and consumption of advanced services, and their ancillary local societies, are connected in a global network, while simultaneously downplaying the linkages with their hinterlands, on the basis of information flows” (417).

A clear demonstration of these theses are his treatment of “new industrial spaces,” which he defines as a kind of far-flung, decentralized assemblage facilitated and constituted by information technologies and other kinds of infrastructures. Nonetheless, particular milieus develop, in which spatial proximity is important, as critical nodes in these networks that work through established spatio-historical, institutional, natural, and cultural linkages, such as Silicon Valley. “Milieux of innovation are the fundamental sources of innovation and of generation of value added in the process of industrial production in the Information Age” (421).

A citation from Saskia Sassen in the book summarizes much of Castells’ treatment of these developments: “in this new global context, localized agglomeration, far from constituting an alternative to spatial dispersion, becomes the principal basis for participation in a global network of regional economies . . . Regions and networks in fact constitute interdependent poles within the new spatial mosaic of global innovation” (424). Bringing these developments to bear specifically on the kind of urbanization produced by the Information Age, Castells writes: “I shall argue that, because of the nature of the new society, based upon knowledge, organized around networks, and partly made up of flows, the informational city is not a form but a process, a process characterized by the structural domination of the space of flows” (429).

Though he does not put it in these terms, the making of global cities and networks is of course an uneven process, connecting some spaces and “disconnecting” others: “Yet what is most significant about mega-cities is that they are connected externally to global networks and to segments of their own countries, while internally disconnecting local populations that are either functionally unnecessary or socially disruptive. I argue that this is true of New York as well as of Mexico or Jakarta. It is this distinctive feature of being globally connected and locally disconnected, physically and socially, that makes mega-cities a new urban form” (436). And yet, this bifurcation of connected/disconnected seems rather undialectical and clunky.

Finally, towards the end of the chapter he defines what he means by the space of flows: “Thus, I propose the idea that there is a new spatial form characteristic of social practices that dominate and shape the network society: the space of flows. The space of flows is the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows. By flows I understand purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors in the economic, political, and symbolic structures of society” (442). I agree with Soja’s assessment that Castells gestures to a dialectic view of society-space (as well as time) but that upon further elaboration he pulls back from a dialectical approach in further explaining his theories of space. Space becomes an “expression” of society; it “is society” in one mention, but this conceptualization does not seem to pan out. Nonetheless, he does acknowledge the necessary implication of practice in terms of any adequate theory of space.

Some of the above mentioned problems carry over into almost all aspects of the arguments in this chapter. For instance, “In short: elites are cosmopolitan, people are local. The space of power and wealth is projected throughout the world, while people’s life and experience is rooted in places, in their culture, in their history. Thus, the more a social organization is based upon ahistorical flows, superseding the logic of any specific place, the more the logic of global power escapes the socio-political control of historically specific local/national societies” (446). Against this bifurcated, undialectical view (paralleled in some ways by the work of Arturo Escobar), Doreen Massey would offer a very opposite view of place, as not only networked but also as a site of power relations. I think this all stems from Castells underlying inability to take seriously the constitutive relationality between space and society, despite some of his own better suggestions. Put crudely, how else could one think that “elites” and “people” pass each other like (spatial) ships in the night?

Finally, two quotes about place and power that are enough to make Massey’s head explode:

“The space of flows does not permeate down to the whole realm of human experience in the network society. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people, in advanced and traditional societies alike, live in places, and so they perceive their space as place-based. A place is a locale whose form, function, and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity” (453).

“Thus, people do still live in places. But because function and power in our societies are organized in the space of flows, the structural domination of its logic essentially alters the meaning and dynamic of places. Experience, by being related to places, becomes abstracted from power, and meaning is increasingly separated from knowledge. There follows a structural schizophrenia between two spatial logics that threatens to break down communication channels in society” (459).

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