Monday, 29 October 2012

Ontological Security and the Built Environment in Belfast

Written after reading 'Conservation as Psychology: Ontological Security and the Built Environment' Jane Greenville.

I have described the primary result of the peace process as shifting the conflict from a physical context to an ontological context. In reality, this ontological context has always been there but was merely eclipsed by the violence. The dominance of the Newtonian/Cartesian mindset has resulted in the assumption that since the violence has stopped the problems are solved. This is based on the idea that there is a physicality reality which holds a set of universal truths. As sociology and even physics begins to reject this idea, we see that there is no such thing as an objective truth and there are countless interpretations of the historical and contemporary anthropology of the city, especially with regards to the emotionally burdened events of 'the Troubles.'

The large scale masterplans being instigated across Belfast are produced by a political system which choses to ignore the ontological divide which continues to thrive amongst it's citizens, particularly in inner-city neighbourhoods. This entails that these masterplans seek to, either consciously or unconsciously, displace the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods, moving them to the periphery of the city.

Belfast can be said to be a city defined by a series problems relating to ontological security. There is the more obvious factor of two opposing ontologies existing side by side in the city, each feeling the have been profoundly wronged by the other while at the same time failing to acknowledge that they themselves have wronged this 'other' in return. The less obvious factor is the ontological (in)security of the state, particularly the newly formed executive. The aversion to further political embarrassment leads to an outright denial of the ontological divide by the politicians, even though their party-political affiliations to dogmas such as republicanism, nationalism, unionism and loyalism means they are, at the very least, complicit in it's perpetuation.

This leads to the dysfunctional schizophrenic city we have today. The city's mantra for 2012 is 'Our time, our place,' something which brings me to question who is it making this statement? Who's city is it anyway? If you went to ask the people of North Belfast, the most deprived ward in UK (according to how you interpret the statistics) who are going to be profoundly affected by both the redevelopment of the University of Ulster campus and the new Royal Exchange retail development and they would probably say that these decisions weren't made to include them in 'out time, our place.' Have a look at the masterplans penned by the DSD 4 years ago and try to decide who's taking ownership of time and place; is it the communities of in the inner north, east and west Belfast who are going to find their social housing disappearing, replaced with mixed use developments?

These moves seem to me to be the legislature's search for ontological security. As the capital city, Belfast needs to be seems as an economic powerhouse, attracting tourism, industry and commerce, all of which was chased off by the violence. Therefore any sign of the violence needs to be scrubbed away, the history of the city containing nothing but happy shipyard workers in flat caps and loud-mouthed but loveable 'millies' working the linen mills with a 'chile' on their hip. This approach exacerbates the more primary ontological gap between the two distinct communities. Neither feels validated spatially within the city, a denial which causes them to become entrenched as they feel more and more threatened, often projecting this threat onto their age old enemy, the 'other' community.

Ontological security within the built environment is a very tricky subject, particularly in a post-conflict city such as Belfast. In her paper 'Conservation as Psychology: Ontological Security and the Built Environment,' Jane Grenville suggests that this security is dependant on a connection to the past making conservation important, but also a connection and a clear path into the future is required. Our built environment needs to start reflecting on the troubles as a major part of our history and it needs to do it in a starkly unromantic fashion, unlike our current approach to shipbuilding and linen. Maybe then we can start to postulate a way forward, a shared future which does not seek to repress cultural identities. 

The current planning practices within the central core of Belfast appear to be moving against this idea, seeing the hollowed out city centre as a tabula rasa, a post-conflict wasteland to be cleared out and rebuilt for the upwardly mobile middle class. I hesitate to use the word 'gentrification' as I don't yet know enough about the conscious and unconscious motivations behind this practice and would just be using it in the emotionally charged way politicians and activists used. I'll find out more and get back to you...


  1. good, but Jane Greenville has questions to answer on the provenance of value, whose history is manifested in those lumps of stone and given a shared occupancy of transactional space how can the same lumps of stone offer the same value to all comers, and all comers are of course needed in the money making machine that is the purpose of the capitalist production of society, hence the publication of books to support the myths.

    1. Thanks for the reply.

      She does briefly touch upon that in her article, suggesting that for some people ontological security is gained by removing these lumps of stone, although it only gets 1 line

      An example I want to look at is the demolition of the old Victorian Short Strand PSNI station, or Mountpottinger Barracks, in Belfast. A building synonymous with satate control in the middle of a predominantly nationalist area. It would have been a great opportunity for a museum or community centre with social housing provisions. Instead it was torn down, as if the bad things that had happened in there somehow haunted it, cursing the community around it...

  2. tearing out a commodity as evil refers to the metaphysics and mythological narrative put out by one group against another as publicity and an attempt, successful it seems, in gaining control of the ideological base in the town hall, an identity based on narcissistic relationships special to one group but not globally, just as conservationists do, with similar metaphysics and mythological narratives, an underlying belief that those in the groups of believers say is beyond our ken, in soul, mind or some other deity, that makes them believe it.