A seemingly never-ending deregulated sprawl,[1] Houston is a capitalist city par excellence.

America’s fourth-largest city’s defacto, haphazard zoning policies and multiple downtown cores have long-fascinated urban geographers. Perhaps most comparable to China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, such defacto zoning makes the city especially malleable to market imperatives.[2] “No zoning” is even reflected in the city’s signature fusional cuisine styles, found in some of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods.[3]

With oil and gas wealth generating innovation in other industries—such as in medicine and in the arts—Space City has recently been hailed as the “city of the future,” that by 2040 will surpass Chicago with over 10 million people.[4] But what can really be said of this future, “written on the wind” of the present? From the Surrealist rooms of Houston’s Menil Collection, Man Ray’s imaginary portrait of de Sade looks on…a painting Lacan called “to wit, a petrified form.”[5]

The real that links the city’s present to its expanding future is climate change. Houston’s proximity to the Gulf Coast means it is increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels and erratic weather systems. And yet little has been done in terms of urban planning or environmental policy to address this. For instance, due to the use of concrete in unfettered construction projects across vital wetlands, heavy rainfall absorption has been drastically reduced, making flash floods more common. Since the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the city has reportedly sunk one inch deeper. There have been three “500 year storms” in three years.

In the “disorder of the real,” nature has become more and more contemporary with capitalist temporalities.[6] The need for Houston to limit its sprawling jouissance is urgent and yet antithetical to the city’s very logic, which presents a special challenge. The city’s main proposal so far is a multi-billion dollar enhanced seawall—a literal defense against the real.

New modes of subjectivation and surplus jouissances of segregation follow. That with market expansion comes more segregation is one of Lacan’s important insights. Houston’s market-driven “no zoning”—that one can theoretically build whatever wherever one wants—does not do away with segregation along racial and economic lines. Indeed, those left most surplus to the city’s prosperity find themselves making use of the labyrinthine sprawling outskirts, such as in sex work.[7]

In the suburb of Sugar Land last year, construction workers discovered the burial site of ninety-five African-American prisoner laborers who had been forced to work on Texas’ sugar plantations from 1878 to 1911. The urban planning professor Andrea Roberts has commented on how such discoveries will become more common as the city continues to sprawl into rural areas.[8] After a year-long legal battle between the school district, who owned the land, and local activists, the construction of a new technical school was finally halted. The land remains empty—a momentary stall in the death drive futurity of Houston’s sprawling unconscious.


[1] “Sprawl,” from the old English spreawlian, to “move the limbs convulsively.”

[2] See Phil Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict (London: Reaktion Books, 2018.)

[3] See “Houston Is the New Capital of Southern Cool,” GQ, accessed online https://www.gq.com/story/houston-restaurants-capital-of-southern-cool

[4] A human trafficking hub, Houston is not that “futuristic” to become the location for the nation’s first sex robot brothel: https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/in-depth/2018/10/17/308292/is-this-the-end-for-a-sex-robot-brothel-in-houston/

[5] Jacques Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. A.R. Price (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014), 105.

[6] See Janet Haney, “The Disorder of the Day: Climate Change and the Capitalist Discourse” in TLR 7 (forthcoming.)

[7] See Gabrielle Banks, “Open air sex trade permeates daily life on Houston’s outskirts,” in The Houston Chronicle, 2 May, 2019.

[8] See Andrea Roberts, “What should be done with the bodies found in the Sugar Land mass graves?” in The Houston Chronicle, 15 August, 2018.

Image: Still from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956)