Towards the great transformation: (2) Nature, Marx’s ‘Old Mole’, and ‘Robinson’

(A preview)

For part 1 of this series, see: Towards the Great Transformation: (1) Beyond ‘the urban revolution’ What kinds of investigation could serve an approach to social transformation that questions the project of planetary urbanisation, involving instead the rediscovery of sentient nature – informed by and informing a new materialism, and a related reconstruction of communalism, even a rediscovery of ‘the city’ (and ‘the country’, which is perhaps the rural and agrarian dimension of ‘civilisation’)? The preview to Part 2 continues below:

‘[T]he landscape of enclosure turned landscapes of US military base is also the world of the Chipping Norton set. A near-uninterrupted narrative of Old Corruption is laid out before us in The Robinson Institute; but at its centre is Marx’s ‘old mole’ of revolution; whose name was ‘Robin Goodfellow.’ (Owen Hatherley, 1)

Just the juxtaposition of these items sets out an implicit line of analysis: landscape, enclosure, US military bases, the Chipping Norton set,(2) corruption, ‘Robinson’, Marx’s ‘old mole’, revolution, ‘Robin Goodfellow’. Enlarging slightly this gives us: a still ongoing series of enclosures ranging in Keiller’s account from the late sixteenth century from to the current largely privatised military sites; the widespread corruption of omni-marketisation for which political, media and business celebrities are, to a large extent standard bearers; the cosmeticised celebration of the country and landscape; the challenging eccentric/excentric representation of and commentary on all this (and more) in a form of investigation that takes in a quasi-fictitious figure, Marx, a symbolic animal, revolution and folklore. This line is developed, implicitly and explicitly, by Patrick Keiller and his friendly but ghostly accomplice, ‘Robinson’ in Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins and his exhibition The Robinson Institute. The selection and representation of such topics combined with the collaboration and partly ironic commentary attributed to his apparently fictitious ‘alter ego’(?), with the possible agency of some lichen (and a mole?), featured prominently on the poster for Keiller’s The Robinson Institute, is an important contribution to knowledge of planetary urbanisation, and to the investigative procedures of ‘reflexivity’ in the socio-spatial sciences or studies.

Neil Brenner has put forward reflexivity as one of the four key elements of critical urban theory in his seminal paper on ‘What is critical urban theory?’ (3) Subsequently in the concluding paper to our four-part series on Assemblage and Critical Urban Praxis, Brenner, David Madden and David Wachsmuth argued convincingly for the need for the engagement of assemblage theory with critical theory, a position also taken by Colin McFarlane in the series,(4) referring specifically in their case for the salience of political economy and of Marx’s account of the commons in relation to ‘original accumulation’ In an Editorial in the same issue, I went on to ask and to begin to answer a question arising from the assertion of that need:

“Back to Marx, then? Yes and no. Wachsmuth et al refer not just to new readings but also to the need for greater reflexivity. But have they themselves gone far enough in this respect? …the celebrated interdisciplinarity of the new critical urban studies is insufficiently trans- and extra-disciplinary.”

What is to follow in 16.4 is essentially a footnote expanding a little on that Yes and No while exploring the approach and some of the aspects of the Keiller/’Robinson’ investigation.

by Bob Catterall, Editor-in-Chief of CITY

See endpiece from CITY (2012) Vol 16. Issue 1-3.



  1. Owen Hatherley, ‘How Patrick Keiller is mapping the 21st century landscape’, The Guardian, 30 March. 2012. The exhibition, Patrick Keiller: The Robinson Institute is at the Tate Britain, 27 March–14 October, 2012.
  2. The colonisation of an English region in the Cotswolds around Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire by a group of powerful media, political and showbusiness friends of the UK’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron. See, but not for my characterisation of this as a colonisation, ‘Who’s who in the Chipping Norton set’? – Telegraph, 5 Mar 2012 (accessed June 14, 2012).
  3. City, 13.2–3, pp.198–207, and subsequently in.
  4. Both of the papers, as is the editorial I refer to later, are in City 15.6: Wachsmuth, Madden and Brenner, ‘Between Abstraction and Complexity: Meta-theoretical observations on the Assemblage Debate’, pp. 740–750; McFarlane, ‘Encountering, Describing and Transforming: Concluding reflections on the Assemblage Debate and Urban Criticality’, pp. 731–9; Editorial pp. 613–7.

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