The emergence of the autobiographic economy:  autobiography as a collective pursuit in the mediated urban realm.

Re-theorizing Jameson’s “experience economy” through the genre and notion of autobiography and within the scope of the environmental disciplines, we may arrive at the term autobiographic economy. Instead of merely isolating the intentions of a well-oiled postmodern industry that feeds ready-made and inert ‘experience’ to passive crowds of unawares, this approach focuses on evident individual desires and recent collective trends in organizing personal records of experience; on the apparent need of actively developing and projecting personified agendas of experience. When access to commodified ‘experience’ is rendered interactive, the autobiographical element comes inescapably into play, eventually taking on a leading role. The text introduces the literary genre of autobiography into contexts of urbanism and architectural theory at the scale of the collective, drawing from the fields of literary criticism and social theory.

To illustrate autobiographic economy in simple terms, we may refer to an obvious and familiar figure from the opening web page of facebook. The featured graphic there depicts characteristically this unforced transition: An ellipse as the globe that, in place of cities, features generic ‘portraits’ – connoting user profiles – linked to one another through curved axes, as dotted lines conveying communication networks. Re-iterating this, that graphic announces a globe urbanized not by towns or capitals – inorganic urban entities, but by autobiographical data that is self-organized and broadcast. Metropolises are thus succeeded by ‘portraits’, cities give their place to individuals, to networks of personal data, to intertwined autobiographical records.

Given its dependencies on capital and authority, architecture silently sheds its criticism, floods its so-called underground scenes, poisons its noncompliant offspring and annuls all contested notions or non-systemic approaches to its practices. Unless, of course, yet another workable stylistic tendency is being announced or if unassumed agendas or further obscure incentives are being served. Architects – as openly admitted by Philip Johnson’s lineage of ‘deliberation’ – generally tend to be – or otherwise wish to have been – affluent entrepreneurs, members of a social elite, capable of orienting and spending the wealth of upper-class peers at will. They need only be substantially gifted as to assemble an entourage of faithful admirers foremost, and then a subordinate workforce of ‘obedient’ employees consistently offering their services reliably under the leader’s aegis; primarily under his/her irreplaceable signature. Networking, lobbying, public relations, secretive associations, demagogical politics and zeal for media coverage leave thus little room for ‘personal’ confession, for directness and anti-conformist thinking; for all the rare qualities so powerfully showcased foremost in masterpieces of literature or in the fine arts. Neither the business-savvy architect nor the media-showered designer is solitary.[1]

As a visceral counteract to this inescapable triviality of the profession, as a lapse of reason and a leap of soberness, re-surfaces the autobiographical element: it constitutes a crack on architecture’s walls, a missed fissure that lets the radiance of the psyche shine through, marking the design output. The autobiographic allows thus for often unintended manifestations of a veiled personage; for issues troubling the designer’s mind; for obsessions, passions and doubts. Emerging as an indispensable predecessor to the presence of humanities in architecture, the autobiographical is established as an axiomatic factor enabling construction to surmount its merely technical agendas, its practical or plainly commercial scopes, and to arise instead as the humane reflection of a cultural practice.

Constituting innate human expression the seeds of passion for the autobiographical are ever-present. Its attributes are re-iterated today in multiple ways; are manifest over manifold scales. It is no secret that contemporary life is characteristically overran by the principle of the quasi-autobiographical, i.e. the so-called lifestyle. As a notion, lifestyle even spearheads unassumed sub-movements in the fields of design. Largely representing consumerist approaches that operate by aligning architecture to the markets of the excessive, lifestyle promotes living patterns emphasizing the abundant and the luxurious, recycled through media exposure; by way of insisting publicity. Lifestyle turns architecture into mere spectacle through strategies prioritizing the seductive and the hedonist in high spirits of extravagant exhibitionism. Indeed, lifestyle leads the outward seeking of supposed identity in contexts of pseudo-individualism compensated by popular fashion and marketed trends.

The very term life-style – Latin stylus, Hellenic stele (στήλη) and even stylos (στύλος, translating into column, pillar or alignment) – stands as the readily consumable life-line, a commonplace alignment, a substitute of the autobiographical for those unwilling or incapable of grafting their own private curricula. Lifestyle re-introduces thus the architectural question of the generic and its banalities – specifically exposing ‘generic super-styling’ versus the commonly anticipated generic non-design, thus bridging opposites that, together, confront a lack of specificity; an absence of individual character, announcing thus a negation of the idiosyncratic.

 The insistence on lifestyle within contexts of design precisely exiles the significance of the autobiographical in architecture and, broadly, the importance of the biomatic element in the man-made environment. The invented neologism biomatic (Hellenic βιωματικός, from bios, βίος, or life) could be viewed as merging the terms bioma (βίωμα) or embedded memory and auto-matic. The biomatic acts thus as automated remembrance and connotes an automaton of self-narration, or the ‘empirical’ operating mechanically.

Insta-gram arises as another neologism connoting autobiography: refers to instantly noting the instance, or to documenting the moment; paraphrased as directly recording a timeline.

The very rise – or even hegemony – of today’s so-called ‘social media’ and their various sub-species, may be considered as another palpable record for such an overwhelming and spontaneous emphasis on the autobiographic; their broad appeal being a potent indicator of an expanding zeal for what can be iterated here as social autobiography. Rephrasing, the escalating fervor for individual – yet ultimately collective – participation to the voluntary ‘offering’ of one’s recollections or re-editions of personal experience, translates to joining the open-ended communal project of broadcast autobiography.

In these strata of social media, autobiography actually emerges as the vital driving force, as an instinct toward self-organization; as a prompt-line or key command that triggers networking, patterning and positioning acts. Indeed, user profiles may actually be rethought here as current cases of ongoing autobiography that is projected and communicated instantly. Whereas the very term profile is, in itself, a direct reference to one’s most characteristic facial depiction; a face-book becomes an archive and a network of such interlinked facial profiles; of autobiographic records. The literary critic Francis R. Hart indeed insists that “autobiography is self-portraiture,”[2] therefore also selfies[3] are surely instant self-portraits and therefore autobiographic artifacts at once. Instagram, on the other hand, a composite of instance and gramma (Hellenic γράμμα, for letter or writing, signifying notation broadly), is an invented title signifying a commercially successful ‘social platform’. Yet insta-gram simultaneously arises as another term connoting autobiography: it refers to instantly noting the instance, or to documenting the moment; it may also be paraphrased as directly recording a timeline.

Such kinds of interactive autobiography become today the vehicles for an urbanization of data – personal data foremost that is. Indeed, social media directly link the strata of private experience to the commons; the shared realm of the urban, of the mutually accessible and the publicized; of the virtual – if not also the material – city scale; of the civitas. This may even sound self-explanatory: such media are autobiographical even though renamed as social. The previously only literary genre of autobiography is therefore re-thought here at the scale of the collective rather than the otherwise obvious scale of the singular personage. We may thus recognize the representation of such practiced notions of community as visualized iterations of collective autobiography.

As such notions of personable collectivity deal with the projection of autobiography onto the communal, a series of discursive frontiers emerge, addressing foremost the collective – or actually the obscurely centralized[4] – sculpting of tools for the pursuit of such autobiography. This refers tentatively to online platforms and broadly to means of representation, to immaterial – yet also material – sites, to content architectures and eventually to tangible architectures, to places and urban entities enabling the formation of individual biographical records by visitors, users, customers, ‘netizens,’ or broadly, citizens. As experience needs to be recorded, sorted, re-conveyed and transferred, it also needs to evolve into visual media of all sorts – photographs, illustrations, texts, videos, signs or sites: experience has to eventually become physical, perceivable. The very attributes of visualized autobiography trigger further theoretical questions on representation – considering representation a nodal frontier for architectural criticism. And indeed, in that scope, the private house can be recognized as the primordial scene for such attempts on visualized autobiography; for memories turned into matter. This transforms the house into another memorial; into another iteration of what we commonly perceive by the notion of the memorial.


The facebook logo – f – combined with the infamous ‘like’ – thumps up – graphic into a re-animated composite; a novel ‘sign’ alluding to a slow moving war-elephant led and flogged by a rider depicted as an impersonated letter. The facebook ‘user’ entirely absorbed by his own social media persona, operates on the basis of public acceptance measured arithmetically through peer responses to his posts.

In conjuring social media as autobiographic domains, we may be criticized for possibly sympathizing with debauched iterations of extroverted self-portrayals as opposed to intimate and profound memoirs. Social media may indeed be reckoned as embodying acute commercial strategies that engross, exhaust or even pervert deeper psychical initiatives toward self-representation. Reflecting on such lucrative business schemes that capitalize on the autobiographic, social media do hijack, divert, and streamline or ultimately consume a recognized, integral tendency of human nature. Inspecting its synergizing parties, the members or users, an exercised fervor for autobiographic hedonism is inevitably unveiled within such milieus; a narcissist zeal.[5] Yet, a bipolar between exhibitionism and voyeurism may be applied here only partially and metaphorically as an exegesis for the irresistible impulse or the tantalizing urge to ceaselessly update and transmit self-describing chronicles.[6] Whereas many are those who insistently question or contest such mainstream practices of the autobiographic as reflecting superficial consumerist accounts or as fictional and manicured self-editions geared toward media exposure, the broad objectives of autobiography remain constant and tangible, even under such allegations. Eventually acquiring a self-analytic character or adopting a psycho-analytic scope, the central quest for projected identity pertains here: the ambition is to lend order to an otherwise schizoid universe of non-identity; to undo the generic and to settle in domesticated environs.

Such self-detective agendas announce autobiography as teleological means. This aligns with Fredric Jameson’s view of schizophrenia as a natural condition of post-modernity; as nodal attribute of a culture that “replicates and reproduces – reinforces – the logic of consumer capitalism,”[7] and as an essential strategy in cultural states where disparate signifiers, images and experiential input fail to arrive at a coherent whole. Therefore, defense and task of such novel kinds of virtual and immediate autobiography – as pursued through social media – seems, at least at first glance, to be precisely the promotion of a communicative whole; a constant re-edition and forging of wholeness. Autobiography declares a project for the tentative reversal of evaporated identity, of the lost ‘self,’ of virtual disparity and loss of locality, a tentative undoing of what is already summed as the schizophrenia of the postmodern.[8] This re-constitution of an eluding unity, spanning metaphysical, religious, as much as philosophical and theoretical frontiers, seems to sum up an unceasing quest for completion and closure; it brings – via differing routes – the psychiatric dimension of autobiography at large.

These – deceiving or not – quests toward self-fulfillment, have ultimately grown into a collective enterprise, a kind of social struggle toward the question of individual positioning; of locus, or otherwise, locality. A parallel discursive frontier arises if the discussed notions of collectivity are here emphatically linked to this emergence of locality. We may thus acknowledge local identity as a record of communal identity; as collective ‘biography’ that is then assigned abstractly to place rather than to the actual groups of people who have actively defined it; as attached to the notion of community. Thus, narratives of ‘place’ dissolve into their fundamental constituents and that is, the records of participants; or, in other words, autobiographical data. We therefore transfer from a discussion on place, to a discussion on people; we move from the geographical to the emotive.

The associated debate from the previous decades, in the contexts of urbanism, emphasized bipolar relations between a so-called global and a local, relying on axiomatic definitions of the exercised terms; on rigid theorems. These may be re-examined hereby. If currently the overall antithesis can be simplified as generic (global) against special (local), the intention here is to re-iterate the discussion as contrasting the impersonal (generic) to the personal (special). As the impersonal is differentiated from the personal precisely through one’s experiences, addressing and emphasizing the very notion of experience becomes inevitable – exactly as Fredric Jameson already suggests in his appraisals of recent day capitalism.[9] Yet, we may re-iterate here experience as processes of constructing biographical input. When the fabrication of such biographical data is individually led – by the experiencing person per se – such processes may be possibly thought of as autobiographical. The global vs. local diptych is therefore transcribed through the analogy of the non-autobiographic (as global) to the autobiographic (as local).

The current landscape of logo buttons

The observed novel instances towards the genre of autobiography and related commercial trends, as much as the spontaneously emerging and collective trends, may lead to a re-edition of Jameson’s past terminology for the “experience economy”[10] to that of an “economy of the autobiographic,” thus broadly emphasizing the significance of the biographical element. Rather than describing a one-way model for a commercial world feeding prefabricated and fixed ‘experience’ to the pacified masses, “autobiographic economy” recognizes a second generation of customizable and interactive agendas towards experience. Rephrasing this, the broadly set issue of abstract experience is recast here as “personally-controlled agendas towards experience,” demonstrating a kind of psychological need for the emergence of autobiography; for the forging and broadcasting of an intimate biographic profile; for interactive memoirs; of transitive biographies.

Contemporary man experiences mutable sets of ‘localities:’ the ones imposed by the immediate environment, the physical ones, and those individually selected through processes of exercised self-consciousness – dealing with professional life, appearance, attitude, style, entertainment or further intangible aspects – and experienced as mental constructs; as abstract yet somewhat spatial structures. Precisely, such ‘localities’ are constituents of an autobiography and emerge as sub-components of our personal realities, defining our varied aspects of life through their pre-fixed connotations. Localities may though be interchanged here with moments, with memories and experiences, connoting the familiar. This notional transferability of localities, of spatially-iterated memes or autobiographical input disengaged from their origin, creates a sphere of trans-biographies.[11]

A collage of trans-biographies or trans-memes, composed of differentiated life politics, lifestyles and perceptions that form mainstream behavior patterns, a constant influx and interplay of cultural multiplicities, responds to the diverse and often contradictory realities we participate in, voluntarily or not, throughout any and every of our days. Rephrasing this, the attributes of such an autobiography are not necessarily geographically consistent but may span infinite distances while conjuring otherwise disparate elements. If place is indeed a cognitive formulation based on the ‘lived experience,’ that is, to participating persons, then as soon as place is dissolved, its conception is inevitably fragmented into its compounds, its minimum monads, and that is once more: persons. Re-constituting place and identity anew at this minuscule scale of the single personage arises therefore inevitably as most flexible and dynamic scenario towards identity formation. It re-iterates autobiography as place-making.

Yet these very scenarios may be even reckoned as precisely demarcating commercial frontiers where autobiographical profiles arise almost as a ‘social commodity’. In this crucial moment in time, the business of offering free virtual platforms for the pursuit and exchange of autobiography within broader contexts of diversified options and customizable menus becomes increasingly a truly thriving frontier of financial profiteering – as recognized in the booming stock-market values of such companies. As such user profiles constitute currently a shared and exchanged good, a source of data and an interactive medium that forms markets and ultimately builds profits; we may recognize the notion of “autobiographic economy” as an ever-expanding prime capitalist armature of the era. More so nowadays, when the relatively saturated postmodern “experience economy” alludes foremost to passé historicized thematic resorts and neo-traditionalist gated communities.[12]

And while witnessing all this as the homogenously-spread species of a ‘collective capitalism’[13] through the hegemony of centrally-controlled and even censored ‘social’ media, the question pertains: do such alluring notions towards the verve of the autobiographical constitute a form of resistance towards numbness within a Zeitgeist of collective desolation and distorted autonomy? Could potentially our very era of the auto-matic and the bio-logical be recorded inclusively as the turn for auto-bio-graphy or as the time of the bio-matic? If the composite word autopoiesis, from auto + poiesis – or poesy – stands essentially for self-making, or for making oneself, then the interjection of _bio in the term seems obvious and self-explanatory, as what is made is definitely bios; one’s own life. Yet the connotation here emphasizes the significance of autobiography as – this time – an architectural genre.

[1] With a few extra pinches of presumptuous omnipotence and succumbed vanity, combined perhaps with a regression of the role of capital, the above depiction stands also as much for the world of architectural academia.

[2] F.R. Hart, “Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography,” in New Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring 1970), pp. 485-511.

[3] The recent term describes a photographic portrait shot by oneself.

[4] Indeed, while media networks do appear collective, pluralistic and hyper-dynamic, their platforms remain austerely centralized; a rather intimidating parameter largely overlooked.

[5] how else could such insisting passions for ‘online posting’ be explained or justified?

[6] As the profiles’ content and concept goes beyond – or often even lies afar from – the sexual and the bodily, it addresses many more aspects of activity and experience, be that intellectual, artistic, religious, scholarly, or athletic interests, etc.

[7] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1992), 125.

[8] The discussion on identity formation, the references to schizophrenia and, overall, the pursuit of autobiography as an inevitable process of self-analysis may evidently lead to the realm of psychoanalytic theory and to related philosophic strata absorbing psychoanalytic notions: namely (amongst others) Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s writings on schizophrenia as relating to Lacanian versus Freudian models and particularly their impressive reversal of Fredric Jameson’s understanding of schizophrenia as a tool against capitalism. As the role and value of schizophrenia in post-modernity differs sharply in the work of various theorists and philosophers, the interface between autobiography and schizophrenia in post-modernity should be studied in a separate text. Briefly, for Jameson, schizophrenia constitutes a latent psychiatric state that promotes and advocates postmodern agendas. Vice versa, schizophrenia is embodied as a postmodern strategy that projects the schizoid and the psychotic thus generating needs and ensuring a growing consumerist clientele. For Deleuze and Guattari, schizophrenia is a prime chance for radical opposition against capital and its market forces. Yet the two French philosophers are themselves already categorized as postmodern theorists, therefore their positions and work may be considered even as internal to postmodern propaganda. Altogether this very subject deserves separate studies, as here lies a critical moment of interpretation towards the significance of autobiography.

[9] Jameson, Ibid., 205.

[10] Jameson, Ibid. A few decades ago, Fredric Jameson outlined in this book the emergence of the so-called “experience economy” as deriving from phenomena of selective hedonism that affect how places, sites or cities are perceived, and, in effect, as commercial and profit-geared strategies on how the urban realm is shaped and developed to promote and serve such experiential agendas. Rephrasing Jameson, in the scope of “experience economy” as spear-headed by forces of globalization, peripheral cultural traits are reduced down to clichés, to expressions of a richly decorative imagery. By-passing all banalities of human existence and concentrating on a celebrative mood that alludes to a national holiday spirit or to ethnic events, such strategies serve easily-digestible, light and comforting experiential agendas that inform a so-called mass culture.

[11] The trans_ prefix is chosen here as it refers to a status of mutation, of transition, a trajectory; movement; flux and flow evolving or eventually leading to a specific state, while the alternative prefix post_ signifies the end of a previous condition without reference to the nature of the present.

[12] It would be superfluous here to address the unrivaled cycles of growth, the expanses of resources allocated, the personal time ‘invested’ or otherwise wasted, or the overall attention offered to networks of autobiography; to social media. Aim of this text is to latently hint at the foundations, the conceptual pre-history, the emergence and apparent strength of such ‘economies’ and marketing endeavors that operate through the pursuit of autobiography.

[13] The oxymoron of ‘collective capitalism’ is introduced as a capitalist ideal that is achieved collectively by absorbing and concentrating all energies allocated privately to free-time personal communication by each individual. By passionate users who somehow volunteer to feed incessantly the data systems with personal input that is directly ‘invested’.

text  Aristotelis Dimitrakopoulos
Architect, Aristotheke Eutectonics, Office of Architecture and Urban Design
Associate Professor of Architecture & Urban Design, Architecture School, University of Ioannina

Η ανάδυση της οικονομίας του αυτοβιογραφικού

Η αποκαλούμενη ως «οικονομία της εμπειρίας», όπως ορίζεται από τον Fredric Jameson, μπορεί να επανεξεταστεί μέσω της αυτοβιογραφίας ως έννοιας στα πλαίσια των πεδίων του περιβαλλοντικού σχεδιασμού, καταλήγοντας στον καινοφανή όρο: «οικονομία του αυτοβιογραφικού». Αντί να απομονώνουμε λοιπόν τις απλές προθέσεις μιας καλο-κουρδισμένης μεταμοντέρνας αγοράς που τροφοδοτεί τις παθητικές μάζες απροβλημάτιστων θεατών με «εμπειρίες» ή προσλαμβάνουσες αδρανοποιημένες και έτοιμες προς ανάλωση, επικεντρώνουμε πλέον το ενδιαφέρον μας εμφατικώς στη διαχείριση της προσωποποιημένης επιθυμίας και εξειδικευμένων προαιρέσεων. Κατακλυζόμαστε προσφάτως από συλλογικές μάλλον τάσεις ως προς τη σύνταξη προσωπικών αρχείων καταγραφής της «ίδιας» εμπειρίας· από καταφανείς εμμονές για την ενεργητική προβολή του προσωπικού βιώματος, εν τέλει για τη μεθεξέλιξη και αναγωγή των δημοσιευμένων αυτών «παραστάσεων» σε χαρακτηρολογικά τεκμήρια, σε μέσα ερμηνευτικής καταγραφής και προσωποποιημένης απόδοσης μιας ιδιαίτερης personnage, μιας ατομικής «ταυτότητας». Καθώς λοιπόν η πρόσβαση στην εμπορευματοποιημένη «εμπειρία» καθίσταται αλληλεπιδραστική – προσδιορίζεται και διαμορφώνεται εξίσου από τον ενδιαφερόμενο – τότε το αυτοβιογραφικό στοιχείο υπεισέρχεται αναπόφευκτα στην εξίσωση, διεκδικώντας εν τέλει ρόλο κομβικό, ή μάλλον πρωταγωνιστικό. Αντλώντας από τα πεδία της λογοτεχνικής κριτικής και της κοινωνικής θεωρίας, το ζήτημα αυτό μας εισάγει στο – κατά τα άλλα λογοτεχνικό – είδος της αυτοβιογραφίας καθώς αυτό εισδύει σε νεοσύστατα περιβάλλοντα αστικοποίησης και αρχιτεκτονικής θεωρίας· καθώς διογκείται στην κλίμακα του συλλογικού, καταλαμβάνοντας τις ‘διαμεσολαβημένες’ αστικές επικράτειες.

Αριστοτέλης Δημητρακόπουλος
Αρχιτέκτονας, Αριστοθήκη Ευτεκτονικής Γραφείο Αρχιτεκτονικού και Αστικού Σχεδιασμού
Αναπληρωτής Καθηγητής Αρχιτεκτονικού και Αστικού Σχεδιασμού, Πανεπιστήμιο Ιωαννίνων

Σημείωση: Το κυρίως κείμενο (αγγλικό) έχει – σε διαφορετική του εκδοχή – παρουσιαστεί στα πρακτικά του συνεδρίου Changing Cities II (Πόρτο Χέλι, 2015).