2012 in review

WordPress have very kindly provided an end of year summary of this year’s Pop Theory activity, and it turns out the most popular things to post about are neoliberalism, governmentality, affect theory, injustice, and, er, Derek Parfit, still. So I guess next year I should continue to grumble about the first three, worry about the fourth one a little more, and reflect a little more on why, or how, any of them matters.

Local Politics: A University for Swindon?

stDespite now being the home to one of the largest collections of scholarly books in the world, Swindon remains very much not-a-University town – there has been a long-standing civic ambition which goes back at least to the 1940s to get one. Recent years have seen initiatives to snag some bit of an expanding existing University, such as Bath, but these have come to naught. It does, though, now have a BPP University College, so that’s good. In a way. Maybe. Maybe not.

Swindon claims, not proudly, that it is the only major urban area in England and Wales without a University, or the biggest one, or some variation on this (though I think Milton Keynes might also qualify for this distinction, depending on what it is that this sort of claim is getting at – it’s about relatively low levels of participation in higher education in these places). Even Cirencester up the road is now set to be a proper University town.

Allan Cochrane and others at the OU have been researching the place of Universities in their localities and regions, looking at the changing rationales of economic growth and public engagement shaping this relationship. Swindon is interesting because here the story isn’t how established institutions now seek to engage with the places of which they are a part, but how and why local actors think it’s a good idea to have a local University in the first place. Via Twitter, I came across the latest round of discussions on this issue of the Borough Council earlier this month, including a consultancy report, A University for Swindon, which provides a profile of the current participation in HE of people living in Swindon. The report is shaped by the aim of establishing levels of potential demand for Higher Education in the town and round-abouts (ha!).

The report, and the wider strategizing over the last couple of years, indicates some of the assumptions about the potential benefits of having a higher education presence (of any sort, we’re not fussy), assumptions shared broadly across the political spectrum (as I think I have mentioned before, Swindon’s civic boosterism has a long history of attracting academic scrutiny of one sort of another, from Michael Harloe in the ’60s through to the 1980s localities debates. Phil Pinch even dubbed Swindon an archetypal ‘ordinary place’ twenty years or so ago. Trust me, it’s certainly a lot more ordinary than Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro).

Anyway, the current strategy is an incremental one. A University Technical College (UCT) is set to open in 2014, with Oxford Brookes as its University sponsor and a locally-based ‘international high-tech’ company as its business sponsor. It will specialize in providing in engineering courses for 14-19 year olds. This is meant to be the first step towards realizing the dream of a University for the town, a dream which is seen as central to local economic development and growth, and which is strongly  supported by Influence, the organization representing the business community in Swindon.

The report commissioned by the Council has some interesting stuff in it. For a start, Swindon has relatively low rates of participation in HE, and they are not improving. This, in fact, is central to the strategy for attracting or building an HE presence locally. There is an assumption that the skills base is central to future economic development, and that a University is one way of dealing with the supply side challenges facing the town. It turns out, and this is what first attracted my attention, that 15% of Swindonians in higher education study with the Open University, which is above the national average. The report takes this as proof of ‘latent demand’ for a local University, along with the fact that a third of all Swindonians enrolled in HE are at UWE in Bristol, Bath Spa, Oxford Brookes, or the University of Gloucester – all about an hours drive away, but none technically ‘local’ according to the way these things are officially defined. But the report is careful to point out that levels of participation in HE are not straightforwardly linked to the presence or absence of a local University: “The availability of local HE provision is just one factor influencing learning patterns, other factors include levels of attainment prior to 19; deprivation and aspirations.” Swindon does not score well at all in those other factors, which is the real story behind the report.

Region

So there are interesting geographies revealed by this report – geographies of absence, and geographies of ambition, and imagined geographies too. In one section, for example, it is noted that “The impetus for a university stems in part from the knowledge that Swindon is one of the few major settlements in the country without an HE institution”. Then, with the help of a rather busy map, it is claimed that “Swindon lies in a swathe of country without a university which stretches from Stratford on Avon in the north to Weymouth in the south. Whilst this research has focused on demand from Swindon; this gap underlines the point that any new university would also be likely to attract students from nearby Wiltshire and Gloucestershire.” I’m not sure this ‘swathe’ actually adds up to a real region – it’s basically anywhere West of the M40 if you swing round Oxford on the A34, east of the M5 as long as you don’t stop at Bristol, Gloucester, or Cheltenham, and a large part of this empty swathe south of the M4 consists of Salisbury Plain. And I rather doubt whether rates of HE participation in Wiltshire towns like Marlborough or Salisbury will be significantly affected by any new University of Swindon (Swindon is in Wiltshire, but not necessarily of Wiltshire). And of course that statistic about the level of enrolment with the OU might not be best read as an index of the absence of alternatives either – but as further indication of the fact that local levels of HE participation are only tangentially related to local provision.

But keep your eye on Swindon – the future of non-elite higher education, shaped by assumptions about skills, the knowledge economy, and business partnerships might be slowly revealed here. Meanwhile, I have the sense of the town having all the component parts of a proper University without quite having composed them properly into one: loads of potential students, as well as already having all the books and even all the research money. What could be easier?

My kind of theory

I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a year or so a book called The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, which I have not quite managed to get round to reading yet, believe it or not, I’ve not had the time, other things to do, you know the sorts of excuses. Anyway, now I notice that Robert Goodin has a new book out, On Settling, all about making do, not endlessly striving for the best outcome.

I think they might make a nice companion pair, somehow. Might even read them one day. If I can be bothered.

Political Concepts

Via geographical imaginations, here is a link to an online journal, Political Concepts, “a multidisciplinary, web-based journal that seeks to be a forum for engaged scholarship. Each lexical entry will focus on a single concept with the express intention of resituating it in the field of political discourse by addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought in that concept”. Some interesting family resemblances, in fact, between this project and the Keywords Project , although also perhaps some distinguishing features too – that emphasis on “addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought” about concepts implies a more obvious ‘critical’ methodology perhaps than the kind of almost philological attention to ordinary usages that might underwrite the concept of ‘keywords’. It seems to me that this sort of methodological difference is worthwhile acknowledging, and thinking through further.

Festschrift for Kevin Cox: Territory, State, and Urban Politics

8thAveJust published I think, a new collection, edited by two Andy’s, Jonas and Wood, entitled Territory, State, and Urban Politics, ‘highlighting and reflecting’ on the work of Kevin Cox – essays by all sorts of people on all sorts of topics, indicating the range of Kevin’s own interests and influence. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

“Following its rise to prominence in the 1990s work on territory, the state and urban politics continues to be a vibrant and dynamic area of academic concern. Focusing heavily on the work of one key influential figure in the development of the field – Kevin R. Cox – this volume draws together a collection of prominent and well established scholars to reflect on the development and state of the field and to establish a research agenda for future work.

The various chapters address methodological, conceptual and philosophical issues, including questions of abstraction and empirical specification. Highlighting and reflecting on the work of Kevin R. Cox, the book assesses his influence and explores his various contributions to important debates on territory, the state, voting in a spatial context, locational conflict, globalization, scale, local economic development, and urban politics. It not only provides a review of Cox’s contributions, but also critically examines the ways in which his ideas have been deployed. Moreover, the book establishes and advances a research agenda for future work on urban politics, the state and territory, drawing insights from influential theorists working at the cutting edge of contemporary spatial research.”

Keywords Project

OELHere is an interesting website for a project developing the analysis of Keywords, after Raymond Williams – I’ve only just seen this, via Progressive Geographies. Includes, amongst other things, an interesting entry on ‘urban‘, as well as videos (High Theory from the 1980s) and other resources – including considerations of the relationship between Williams’ methodology and that of William Empson (I’ve always liked Empson’s notion of the ‘compacted doctrine’, although it’s a bit more arty than Williams’ notion).

The video material is great – mostly from the 1986 conference that generated the collection The Linguistics of Writing, which when I was little was one of the most mind-blowing things I read – it includes a snippet of Mary Louise Pratt talking about the ‘linguistics of contact’, a theme from her auto-critique of speech act theory and other ‘linguistic utopias’ which is one of the backgrounds to the her work on colonial and postcolonial ‘contact zones’ (in my head, I sometimes think of myself as having written a PhD inspired by discovering the connection between these two facets of Pratt’s work; then again, sometimes I remember it as being about the difference, so to speak, between Derrida and Ricoeur. I’m not sure it ended up looking like either). Anyway, all still good stuff, and not only for nostalgic reasons, if you’re at all still interested in things like the ordinary, pragmatics, and other backwaters of Theoryland.

Urban discontents

boatsThere has been a flurry of interest in the theme of ‘planetary urbanization’ recently. Andy Merrifield has an essay on the theme of ‘Whither urban studies’, and there is a longer published version of his argument about the contemporary fate of the old-fashioned sounding ‘urban question’ (and Andrew has a new book coming out on all this too, The Politics of the Encounter). There is a video of the workshop discussion of the same theme at theurbanfix. This post also includes a link to a lecture by Neil Brenner on similar themes, re-posing ‘the urban question’ as ‘the urbanization question’ – and outlining some themes from a paper on planetary urbanisation by Brenner and Christian Schmid in a recent collection, Urban Constellations, edited by Matthew Gandy.

My interest in these interventions arises both from some things I have been trying to work on (teach, mainly), and also because I am meant to give a paper in a session at the 2013 Association of American Geographers meeting in a set of sessions on the future of critical urban theory. Reading and watching these and other things are helping me to clarify what it is I might try to say then.

There are some interesting overlaps in the arguments being made across this range of ‘post-Lefebvrian’ urban theory (I just made that up). There is the gesture of noting and then taking one’s distance from the oft-repeated line about ‘more than half the world’s population’ now living in cities, or at least in some type of urban settlement. It’s no doubt sensible to pause awhile about such stylized facts (although the stats about urban population growth might be better thought of along the lines suggested recently by David Runciman in LRB, as representations that enable certain sorts of political work to get done, not just as data to be dismissed as empiricist distractions). The distance-taking involves a move towards a claim about what urban theory can and should do, negatively and positively. It should definitely not, it turns out, presume the adequacy of taken-for-granted, ‘positivist’ understandings of what a city is, or of what counts as an urban settlement more generally – that risks buying into not only out of date notions, but ‘ideological’ ones too. What urban theory should do is burrow down into the ontological – to define clearly what the object of analysis of what-used-to-be-called- ‘urban studies’ actually is, in all its multiplicity-yet-dialectical-unity. It’s not at all clear why any intellectual field needs this sort of philosophically underwritten definitional clarity – other than as a prop to cope with a lack of confidence.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the arguments going on here are, in terms of their content as it were, really interesting: Brenner and Schmid’s theme of concentrated and extended urbanization processes is a really neat way of capturing the dynamics of contemporary spatial processes; Andy Merrifield has a really interesting riff about thinking of so many urban attributes (but I’m not sure we need to think of these as all an expression of a singular substance).

BEIn general, the story seems to be that we should think in terms of processes, maybe practices and strategies too, rather than fixed entities like ‘cities’ or discrete spatial objects like ‘the urban’. I suppose. This is a not unfamiliar argument of course, one made around issues of scale, for example, or indeed pretty much any other concern touched by Theory – personal identity, the state, Capital. I wonder whether this is really all that exciting any more as a claim about what theory can do for us. It is actually rather odd to assume that one needs theory to gain insight into the made-up, enacted, assembled, contingent, flow-like qualities of things that we often talk about and experience as if they were thing-like. And if theory is given this special privilege in the register of revelation, attached to a claim about its ‘political’ significance, then there is a risk of missing some important dimensions about the ordinary ways in which things (cities, states, people-with-identities) configure our lives in manageable, responsible ways (it also risks buying into some hoary modernist notions that somehow ordinary language isn’t quite adequate to capture the processual and relational qualities of live; it is, of course, perfectly adequate for that task, that’s why we have words like ‘process’ and ‘relation’ in the first place, and verbs, stuff like that).

It’s easy to pick holes in definitions of ‘the urban’. If you spend enough time looking at these definitions, you can come away thinking that you are in the middle of a Borgesian fiction, social-science style. Urban can mean:

‘Localities of 200 more inhabitants’ (Greenland); ‘Agglomerations of 2500 or more inhabitants, generally having population densities of 1000 persons per square mile or more’ (USA); ‘Towns, that is, localities legally established as urban’ (Bulgaria); or just ‘Town of Stanley’ (Falkand Islands(Malvinas)).

Borges’ lesson about the arbitrariness of classification was, of course, that the seemingly arbitrary qualities of classifications which lack definitive clarity are best read as an index of specific practical purposes and plans.  I suppose, then, that doubts about the adequacy of some concepts of the urban are really an indication of doubts about the value of the projects of which those concepts are central. Radical urban theory, after all, has been consistently suspicious of ‘applied’ styles of urban thinking, those too closely connected to fields of planning, for example, or development, or even environmental management, where all those clunky concepts of bounded settlements and territorialised objects do their useful work – preferring to identify with social movements, and with more or less concrete imaginations of protest and resistance.

837I have to come to like the idea that ‘the urban’ is really a name for a problem, or for a series or variable problems (not quite the same as thinking of variable ‘attributes’). This is an idea I am stealing for my own purposes from my colleague Allan Cochrane, who develops it in his book on Urban Policy (if one is looking for an authoritative Theory reference, Foucault’s observations in his lectures on Security, Territory and Population about ‘the problem of the town’ might be a fun place to start – ‘the town’ emerges there as a figure for an extended network of dependence and vulnerability to which various agencies seek to respond). Allan, Scott Rodgers and I have been trying to articulate some of the implications of thinking about the urban in this way, partly through an edited collection on the theme of ‘Where is urban politics?’ that might hopefully see the light of day next year. Meanwhile, I have also tried to articulate the same set of ideas while thinking about making an OU Masters course on the theme of Changing Cities intended primarily to translate critical urban theory into a useful resource for those professions who act as key ‘intermediaries’ of contemporary spatial politics (planners, environmental managers, those sorts of people, maybe the occasional ‘activist’). To cut a long story short, I think the point would be that all those various attributes of ‘the urban’ are generative of their own points of political contention – but also that there is more to the variety of urban politics than protest; and indeed, that there is often more to protest than protest (protest is a form of claim-making, after all, of one sort of another). And, finally, that there is no reason whatsoever to assume (or want) this variety of urban-generated-but-not-contained politics to coalesce into anything so coherent as ‘revolutionary politics’ (one of the unacknowledged achievements of Marxist spatial theory is to demonstrate that the universalised agency required of a revolutionary political imaginary is always already, as they say, displaced and deferred).

So I have decided that arguments about the need to update and refine, specifically, to refine, our understandings of urban and urbanization, by posing this issue in terms of a debate about ‘the urban question’ from almost 40 years ago, tell us more about the operative concept of ‘theory’ at work in certain strains of critical urban and spatial theory than they do about how best to think about the meaning of ‘urban’, urbanism, the city, or urbanization. I wonder whether theory is really the sort of practice that has the task of isolating the ontological outlines of phenomena – of ‘the urban’, or perhaps, ‘the political’, from the appearances of town and cities and mere politics (there is of course much the same concept of theory at work in accounts of ‘the political’ as in contemporary discussions of ‘the urban question’, sharing much the same intellectual lineage – not for nothing does the notion of ‘post-political’ attach so easily to discussions of ‘the city’). I wonder too whether theory is really the proper medium for identifying the immanent potential for radical change in current events. Theories are, by definition, always theories of something – which means that any theory is caught in a subordinate relation of accountability to something that it isn’t. Unfortunately, too often this ‘other’ of theory is just assumed to be ‘Politics’ – which means that an overly theoreticist account of theory ends up holding itself accountable to an overly theoreticist account of what counts a proper politics.

So I’m left thinking that what the current state of radical urban theory confirms is not so much that ‘the urban’ is conceptually incoherent, but rather that the model of theory at work in this field needs to be challenged.