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Editors’ Note: Breaking from our customary critical journalistic approach, Failed Architecture is incorporating speculative writing into some of our recently published pieces. This new endeavour seeks to deepen our comprehension of spatial politics and spatial practices by introducing alternative forms of writing and thinking. Embracing speculative writing presents an opportunity to surpass traditional and hegemonic forms of discourse, opening doors to alternative perspectives, futures and imaginative explorations of our present. Moreover, it enables us to envision different approaches to addressing the current poly-crisis. We hope that this new exploration sparks new dialogues with our readers and contributors. 


He is a free and secure citizen of the world because he is on a chain that is long enough to allow him access to all parts of the earth, and yet not so long that he could be swept over the edge of it.

Franz Kafka, Zurau aphorism #66

In one particular forest meadow there lived many snakes and, below the ground, many moles as well. The moles lived in tunnels of their own devising, eating bugs and worms, enjoying the dark. The snakes ran all over the ground, wherever they pleased. Sometimes they went into the moles’ tunnels to eat the moles, although generally speaking they found prey in the surrounding forest. When the snakes did eat the moles on occasion, they liked to turn the mole tunnels into snake dens, though mostly just to play in them–snakes like to be out in the open. 

After a long time like this, one day strange items began to appear in the meadow. The first one had a funny shape, like a wobbly corkscrew stuck into a spongy block, just lying there in the grass. None of the snakes knew what to make of it; the moles didn’t really even notice, since they were mostly underground looking for bugs anyway. Now and then another item would turn up: this one looked like a big eggshell with a square hole in it; this one looked like a tangle of string, but all frozen in place; this one was just a little furry lump, but with stiff hairs that hurt to touch; or a scrap of filmy stuff stretched between a couple of branches, or a long, straight needle stuck deep into the ground, or an odd smell with no obvious source, or a box with something inside that rattled, or just chunks of things, or puddles. But it wasn’t just that the animals didn’t know what to make of these items; no, they caused problems by changing their surroundings in weird ways.

Some of these changes were just annoying. For instance, the eggshell made a loud buzzing sound all day and night, which made it hard for the snakes and moles who both used their ears to conduct most of their business. Or another item, which was like three thin rods leaning against each other, and which caused all the plants nearby to die and be replaced with other kinds of plants; which wasn’t too bad for the snakes or the moles, who didn’t have much use for plants at all–but still, they’d gotten used to the meadow looking a certain type of way. 

Some of the items, though, changed things in a more dangerous way. One was so hot that it burned up anything that came near, snake or mole or bug. One replaced all the air around it with something that tasted like air but wasn’t. One turned everything square, which moles can’t be; one slowed things down so much that nobody could do anything at all. And so lots of the meadow became extremely confusing and dangerous for anyone who lived there. 

The moles did what they always did when they encountered danger, which was to dig new tunnels in other directions. But it was hard to know where to dig, because sometimes new items would appear all of a sudden, above the ground or even buried inside it; and of course the moles, inside their dark, smooth-walled tunnels, wouldn’t be able to see them–they’d just experience the environmental changes, like when one item changed the shear strength of the soil around it, causing the nearby tunnels to cave in on top of the moles; or when one item made all the bugs really smart so that the moles couldn’t catch them; or when one item just turned all the moles who came close to it into scraps. And besides, all these new tunnels, dug so quickly and uncertainly, just meant even more new airholes for the snakes to find, and so it was easier for the snakes to get the moles. 

But up on the surface the snakes had their own problems too. Usually new things are exciting to snakes, who can go wherever they want; and so they tried to see if some of these new items might be good to eat, or fun or useful in some other way, or if some of the changes they were making might be good for snakes, somehow. The problem was that it was hard to tell which ones were dangerous and which ones were alluring; and sometimes it seemed to change as you got closer, or depending on your point of view. And so the snakes continued to run all over the ground, sometimes chasing these new items and sometimes fleeing from them, all day long and at night too. But snakes need to spend a lot of time relaxing, and in this new situation where they were too excited to take a break from going everywhere, they began to get more and more exhausted until they just started to break down. And it went on like this until there were left just one snake and one mole. 

Now near the edge of the meadow there had always been an enormous boulder of crumbly rock, with tufts of grass as a crown. The moles usually avoided it, because the sandy soil around its base scratched their claws when they were digging; and besides, the boulder stuck so far down into the ground that it got in the way of all their tunnel planning. The snakes always thought that it looked like a nice thing to relax on top of, but none of them had ever figured out how to get up there. One day, the mole and the snake–who’d agreed not to try to eat the mole, because then there would be nobody left at all to talk to–happened to find themselves sitting in front of the boulder (having nowhere really else to go), and were surprised to see that about half of it had disappeared, leaving behind a smooth scoop, like an apple with a bite out of it. They were both inclined to leave–especially the mole–because being cautious in avoiding strange things was largely how they’d both lasted so long (as well as luck, of course). But the inside of the boulder was striped very beautifully, with stripes of every different color and texture of stone, and they couldn’t help but get up close to it and admire the stripes for a while; it had been a long time since either of them had seen anything that seemed beautiful. And then the stone began to speak.

“Are you opabiniids or  lobapods?” The mole and the snake said that they were neither, and that they were a snake and a mole, and asked the boulder what kind of boulder it was to have such a beautiful set of stripes on the inside. “I am not a rock; I am inside the rock. I am an acritarch, and I have been sitting here quietly for for one billion six hundred million years. How did you get into my rock?” The mole explained what had happened to the boulder, and more generally what had been going on in the meadow with the strange items and all the difficult changes they were causing. Then the snake asked, “what kind of animal is an acritarch?” (thinking that it might be something worth trying to eat). The acritarch replied, “an acritarch is a small microfossil characterized by having a spherical shell and an uncertain origin.” The mole and snake were impressed to hear this statement, because while they were familiar with various bugs and snails that had shells, they had never known any of them to be spherical; and furthermore, they had never encountered a creature with an uncertain origin (moles came from the ground, like bugs, and snakes came from moles, somehow). 

The acritarch continued, “It seems like your troubles are caused by an environment that is no longer comprehensible. I come from a time with similar challenges, called the Proterozoic eon.” Neither the snake nor the mole could remember such a time, and had never even heard of it. “During the Proterozoic eon,” said the acritarch, “everyone lived in the oceans, which were dark and noisy, like the inside of your stomach. At first it wasn’t so hard to survive: all you needed was a good shell, and you could keep your insides safe and contained. When things outside got a bit more worrisome, well, you could just grow a bit of a thicker shell and be mostly fine. But eventually the oceans started to get–well, not just worrisome, but complicated. It became harder to tell which sorts of things were useful, or even desirable; and which sorts of things were dangerous; and then of course most things outside were somewhere in-between, or both at the same time, depending on what you needed. And after a certain point it didn’t matter how thick your shell was (and some of us grew very thick shells indeed); because if you couldn’t sense what was going on out there, you’d never be able to figure out what to make of all the complexity, and how to distinguish resources from threats.”

“And so we began to experiment with our shells. We tried all kinds of things at first–tricks to find a balance between protection and openness. Some acritarchs opened up windows in their shells–perforations and peepholes, gateways, mouths, ears, and nostrils of every shape and size. Some chose to double or treble their rings of shells, forming a nested defense with the innermost layer the sturdiest and the outermost light and permissive. And some reached out into the darkness, extending tendrils and tentacles, casting nets, erecting watchtowers linked by palisaded passageways to the sensitive core. Some even became triangular, or adopted other bizarre shapes and attitudes!” The acritarch laughed, as did the mole and the snake.

Then the snake asked, “why didn’t you simply lose your shells altogether? It’s easier to chase after resources and try out new experiences when you’re light and nimble, and when you can see everything at the same time, with nothing in the way–and it’s more fun to go quickly than to float around in the dark.” “Maybe that might seem true in your case,” replied the acritarch, “but acritarchs need a safe space at their center to protect our most sensitive activities, our delicate chemical reactions, our precious possessions. And besides–how is that working for you anyways, these days?”

The snake agreed that no, neither of them was doing very well–it was hard to find things to eat, and most of the places they were used to spending time in were too dangerous to visit now, and worst of all it was just very sad being the only ones left; even though they still had each other to talk to, they really just didn’t have very much in common other than the hardships and pain of living in the meadow. And so the acritarch advised them; and they followed its advice, as well as they could. 

The mole returned to his tunnels and started to change them from the way they’d always been dug: roughening the smooth walls to let moisture and sound filter in; poking narrow shafts in various directions to allow views into different places; perforating the main passageways with cupolas and crenellations, nooks, and niches, spots to sit quietly and listen; mixing strange soils and other stuff into the walls themselves to give them new properties; and even opening up skylights, through which to spy on the goings-on above the ground. None of this was easy for the mole; moles are soft, weak things, especially vulnerable when they are alone–sometimes they can seem more like liquids than animals, taking their shape from the walls that bound them. Each opening the mole pierced in its dirt walls felt like a sharp poke or a deep scratch in its very skin; and yet all kinds of new sensations came in through the cuts as well.

The snake, conversely, and in strong contrast to its nature, began to erect partitions and obstructions on the surface–earthworks and grass fences, palisades of twigs and concentric rings of pebbles and bigger rocks, ripples in the topsoil formed through the coiling motion of its own body, translucent curtains of dandelion seeds. All of these new structures divided the meadow somewhat, here blocking views and there creating enclosed spots for quietness and reflection. As it carried out these building projects, the snake couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable, though–a quiet feeling, in the background, like when sometimes it could detect faint ground vibrations with its inner ear but couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Because snakes don’t build; and they certainly don’t like being enclosed within boundaries, or being blocked–they make space simply by staying in motion. And so sometimes it went outside of its new boundaries and sped across the ground like in the past, which always felt good, and natural–until it came across one of the upsetting and painful new changed places, and remembered the acritarch’s advice. The acritarch, for its part, didn’t say much of anything, as pieces of the crumbly rock inside the boulder continued to shuffle off into a growing pile on the ground. 

In making these changes, both animals altered their relationship with their surrounding environment by surrounding themselves with permeable boundaries–the mole by introducing new permeability to its rigid walls, and the snake by erecting new boundaries where none had existed before, and where it had been nakedly exposed to the harshness of its surroundings. And both animals were now able to distinguish between things to be avoided and things to be sought out; and were given both views through which to observe the strange items and the changing environment, as well as intimate spaces in which to think about them. And both animals were able to exist stably in the meadow again, though it was still a weirder place than it had been before–and even to grow a little, and to welcome new moles and snakes in from the woods beyond the meadow, and to enjoy their life once more. But they weren’t really moles or snakes any more, but a new kind of thing altogether.