I’ve mentioned that I have recently been writing lots of commentaries on books (other people’s and my own), and the latest of these to find its way out into public is part of a review symposium in Urban Geography on Erik Swyngedouw’s Promises of the Political, put together by Joe Penny. If you don’t have access to the journal, Erik has also posted the symposium on his page at ResearchGate. My own thoughts on Erik’s book appear under the title ‘Mourning politics Final‘.
So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published. It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.
This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.
It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.
I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.
The book doesn’t even have any empirical case studies in it, upon which to hang a more popular pitch. It doesn’t really have much more than passing references to some real-world examples. In this respect, I might have broken one of the cardinal rules of writing in GeographyLand. But the book is about the different forms of theoreticism that one finds in contemporary political thought, where that refers to the ways in which appeal to preconstructed examples is used to confirm ready-made philosophical perspectives. So, as a matter of principle, I couldn’t very well reproduce that same gesture myself.
I realise that this might sound defensive, although in this respect I’m in good company. Kant, in the Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, starts by apologising for not having any examples or illustrations, which he knows would have helped the reader along (if you live and work among geographers, his discussion is actually very funny – it indicates that Kant really was a proper geographer, haunted by the same anxieties about ‘real world examples’ that we have drummed into us all the time!). I am going to resist the temptation to lay claim to his defence that “many a book would have been clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear”. I am inclined instead to appeal to another grand Theory Master, Talcott Parsons (great name) – Parsons, in his 1968 Introduction to a new edition of The Structure of Social Action, also responds to the accusation that his work was all theory and no empirics – his book, he asserted, was “an empirical study in the analysis of social thought”, which treats the writings of various thinkers as “documents” that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. Had I read that before I finished my own book, I would have used it, but I didn’t, but I am certainly going to use it a lot from now on. It’s pretty much exactly how I conceive what I am doing in The Priority of Injustice. This is not, mind, merely a matter of exegesis – it’s more like something described by Yi-Fu Tuan, in another preface (I do read past the first few pages of some books), to his Dominance and Affection. He describes his book as an essay, a preliminary undertaking that imaginatively lays out ideas, as a first step towards the focus on specific problems and their analysis. I see my book as doing a bit of what both Parsons and Tuan recommend, with only touch of the apologetic anxiety expressed by Kant.
I should have a go, shouldn’t I, at saying out loud what this very long book is actually about, what it actually argues (it does have a fantastic index!). There is a promotional jacket blurb, which does a quite good job of doing that, but let me try to give a little more substance.
The first thing to say is that this an argumentative book – it’s an argument for a certain way of thinking and theorising, and against certain other ways. The ways of thinking that I argue against can be variously characterised, for sure, but I have come to think of them a constituting a fairly coherent discourse, shall we say, that defines being in the true of avowedly ‘poststructuralist’ critical thought. That name might not quite capture the field, exactly, but what I have in mind is an intellectual world defined by two core features: a recurrent fixation on the dynamics of subjectification; and a tendency towards what I have called ontological trumping, expressed most clearly in the convergence of critical spatial theory with assertive ontologies of the political. Take those two features, splice them together, and you have entered into the unreflexive common sense of what it means to perform critique in contemporary TheoryLand.
The Priority of Injustice is, primarily, a book about democratic theory, which isn’t just any old body of theory, but it’s also a book about the vocation of critical theory more broadly. It’s also in part a book in which I try to pay homage to the thinkers who have really influenced my own intellectual trajectory: thinkers including Stanley Cavell and Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, Linda Zerilli and Stuart Hall, Albert Hirschman and Partha Chatterjee, Nancy Fraser and Hannah Pitkin, Axel Honneth and Bernard Williams, Phillip Pettit and Cora Diamond. As well as old uncle Habermas, of course. Somewhere in that list there is, I think, the outlines of an account of the rapprochement between post-analytical political philosophy and critical theory of a big C and big T, post-Frankfurt School style (that might be the subject of the next book). It’s in the relationship between those two traditions that I situate my own vision of the tasks of doing critical analysis in a democratic spirit.
The book has three parts, and certainly in my head, these three parts hang together perfectly in a narrative sequence (but hey, you can dip and dip out too, I’m sure – nobody actually reads academic books from front to back, do they?).
In the first part (Democracy and Critique) – which I can’t help but think of as the equivalent of the ‘methods’ section – Chapter 1 (An Awareness of Politics) distinguishes between different styles of radical democratic theory, arguing that it is not disputes about the meaning of democracy that are crucial so much as different understandings of the meaning of meaning. I argue that the rise to prominence of ontological trumping in political thought is associated with an attachment to the ‘etymological gesture’ in accounting for the meaning of key terms of democratic dispute (and I also suggest that Roland Barthes has much the most interesting thing to say about democracy as any twentieth-century French thinker). In the next chapter (Criteria for Democratic Inquiry), I try to articulate, for the first time in my own writing, why I love Stanley Cavell, outlining a view of how the meaning of democracy can be best approached as a problem by roving across discussions of exemplary thinking in Arendt and Derrida, ‘the ordinary’ and the projection of new meanings in Cavell and others, ‘essentially contested concepts’, and analogies of lake-formation, and the ideas of ‘the enactment of democracy’ and democracy as an ‘ethnographically emergent’ phenomenon. This is all as a preliminary to the discussion in Part 3 of the book (Phenomenologies of Injustice) about attending to the force of assertive claims against injustice.
Before getting to that bit, though, the book has a big middle section (Rationalities of the Political), consisting of three chapters in which I try to redeem something of value from what has become the deadeningly simple analysis of ‘the political’, the post-political, and (de-)politicization. In draft, this section was very long, 100,000 words or so, and it was largely negative in tone, but then I remembered the reason why I cut a very similar section from a previous book I wrote – because it seemed a waste of an opportunity to write so much about something that you didn’t actually feel was of much value. So I try to reconstruct the kernel of what is interesting about the tradition of predominantly Francophile discussions of the theme of ‘the political’ (a large part of the answer to what is most interesting about that theme is… the American strand of debates about the eclipse of ‘the political’). I argue (in The Ontological Need) that the splitting of politics into 2 parts (politics and the political, etc – a trick that is mind-blowing the first time you come across it, but quickly loses its allure) – needs to be saved from the prevalent ontological reading in which it has now been entombed. Discussions of the political, certainly in GeographyLand and related fields as well as in a great deal of political theory – qualify as metaphysical in the sense used by Cora Diamond: they impose requirements on what and how phenomenon should appear and how they should be apprehended in order for them to qualify as properly political. It is, really, a bizarre style of analysis, but one which is really good for reproducing certain sorts of spatialized romanticism. Along the way, I attempt to parse different vocabularies of antagonism in political thought (in The Scandal of Consent and The Significance of Conflict), suggesting that it a good idea NOT to ontologize conflict, struggle, and contestation.
I proffer instead a view of ‘the political’ theme that recovers the phenomenological inflection of this concept as it shows up in the often rather pessimistic viewpoints of Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin and Pierre Rosanvallon, with a backward nod to Merleau-Ponty’s Machiavellian account of political life. Finding the interesting aspect of discussions of ‘the political’ in the emphasis on the experiential (which is emphatically not the same as super-structuralist analyses of ‘distributions of the sensible’) allows me to seamlessly link the three chapters of this section of the book to the discussion in the final part of the book.
In the final three chapters, I follow a hint by Axel Honneth and seek to reconstruct a lineage of radical democratic thought that develops not by reference to ever more refined ontologies of disruption and becoming, but by reference to the analysis of the rationalities of action. The final part of the book, the assertive part, has three steps, chapter by chapter: first, (in Claims of the Affected) I reconstruct how the theme of all affected interests has been revived in the geographical turn of certain strands of political thought, and add my own inflection (with due acknowledgement to Robert Dahl), suggesting that this idea needs to be thought of as a heuristic device rather than a prescriptive rule. That argument is then connected (in Subjects of Domination) to a consideration of how theories of democratic justice have come to pivot on the value of non-domination (partly but not only with reference to Phillip Pettit), and how this in turn implies a particular understanding of the grammar of justice claims, best articulated by the wonderful work of Iris Marion Young, my guiding light in all things democratic. The final chapter (The Sense of Injustice) then works through the implications of the argument about affectedness, non-domination and claims-making more fully, catching sight of and bringing into the open a somewhat under appreciated strand of thought that interrupts debates about how best to theorise justice not by ‘going ontological’ but by reordering the conceptual relationships between the idea of justice and the experience of injustice. That strand of thought is quite thin, it’s very recent, but it includes some heavy hitters – Shklar, Sen, for example, and it meets critical theorists like Honneth coming from another direction, and I seek in this last chapter to express why giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life matters to the vocation of critique (the theme of the priority of injustice should not be confused with a more general preference, not least in GeographyLand, for practice over theory – I explain just why it shouldn’t in a new paper in Annals of AAG – and to be clear, that paper is a supplement to the book, it contains a discussion that isn’t in the book at all).
And then the book ends, with a claim – a reminder to me more than anything else – about that earlier point that the whole book is really an essay – a preliminary to further inquiry, a setting of a scene, if not of an agenda. If there is anyone out there who wants to give me loads of money to actually pursue the research programme laid out at the end of the book, do let me know.
“The differentiation of the political today, then, follows from the fact that more and more modes of representation, types of supervision, procedures of monitoring, and manners of expression of preferences are becoming available and distinguishing themselves from one another. Paradoxically, democracy thus seems to be diluted precisely because the possibilities of relating to institutions and one another are multiplying.”
Pierre Rosanvallon, 2006. Democracy Past and Future, New York, Columbia University Press.
“Perhaps what characterizes political life is precisely the problem of continually creating unity, a public, in a context of diversity, rival claims, unequal power, and conflicting interests. In the absence of rival claims, and conflicting interests, a topic never enters the political realm; no political decision needs to be made. But for the political collectivity, the “we”, to act, those conflicting claims and interests must be resolved in a way that continues to preserve the collectivity.”
Hannah Pitkin, 1972. Wittgenstein and Justice: On the Significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Social and Political Thought, University of California Press.
Last week, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers (‘the IBG’, if you’re old and slow enough). This was my last formal act as an OUer. The paper was in one of two sessions on Geographies of the Political Party, organised by James Scott and Jane Wills. The two sessions were full of entertaining stuff, about patronage and corruption in New South Wales, Communist Party reinvention in the Czech Republic, versions of Max Weber, and much else besides.
Anyway, my paper was an attempt to think about some of the reasons why political parties don’t show up in ‘critical’ research on politics in geography, beyond a handful of stereotypes. In part, it was based on some reflections on how and why they have and haven’t shown up in some research projects I have been involved in, although that part is not very explicit. In the same spirit as my posting of my AAG paper earlier this year, I have added this paper to the Things to Read section, if anyone is interested to know what I spent at least some of the summer thinking about.
My review of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left has just been published on Antipode’s online Book Review page. There is also a (shorter) review of the same book by Fred Inglis in the Times Higher. And the Mobilizing Ideas blog had a post about it a while ago too, in case you missed it (and are interested in these things).
For those interested, here are details of a forthcoming conference Thinking the Political, reflecting on the work of Ernesto Laclau, at the University of Brighton next month, including registration details.
I gave a research seminar at Exeter last week, talking through an argument I have been knocking around for a while about how to draw on certain strains of political theory in order to clarify what cities might have to do with democracy. It’s actually quite difficult to set about this task at the moment without bumping into some version of an argument about the post-democratic city and the apparently post-political contemporary condition. But I did my best to do so, and for the most part succeeded.
I remain rather puzzled by just how much airtime the ‘post-political’ story has gotten, even if only as a reference point around which people interested in issues like contestation and democracy feel the need to orient themselves (in that sense, it surely qualifies as having a hegemonic status in more lefty varieties of human geography). There is something patently absurd about a frame of analysis, however wrapped around with citations and quotes from retro-style master philosophers, which predetermines in advance that all sorts of interesting looking political phenomena are not, in fact, properly political at all – because they seem not to conform to a risibly constricted definition of what the properly political should look like. There is more than a touch of Humpty-Dumpty in the way that the ‘post-political’ has come to be conceptualised in geography and urban studies and related fields.
The topic of the post-political did come up after the talk, in the Q&A and over coffee afterwards, and this set me to thinking, on the way home mainly, about the trajectory taken by ideas about ‘the political’ since I can first remember coming across them (I can remember reading Nancy Fraser write about this notion, and its importance to certain strands of French poststructuralism, when I started out as a graduate student, in her collection Unruly Practices; then in Simon Critchley’s book on The Ethics of Deconstruction, via the collections of Lefort’s writing published by Polity around that time). The first time you read about the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, I suspect, in whatever form, it is an arresting idea. It can open up new avenues of inquiry. But as versions of this distinction have diffused through Theory-land, so it has become a progressively more simplistic theme.
In its ‘hegemonic’ form, the concept of ‘the political’ has become associated with a relentlessly dualistic style of thinking – one that offsets contestation against consensus, disruption against stability, openness against closure. Guess which side of each pair counts as being ‘properly’ political? Surely it shouldn’t be quite so difficult to imagine politics as involving, ‘properly’, a range of relationships between questioning, challenging, acting, deciding, enmity, friendship, compromise, brokering, deal-making, principle, antagonism, hypocrisy, and the like.
I think you can identify three broad variants of the politics/political distinction circulating in Theory-land, some of which might be more dominant in some fields in some times than the others (the three-fold distinction is a bit rough and ready, but hey, this is a blogpost remember, it’s not a refereed academic journal article).
1). First, most recently, there is the currently very loud variant which takes the form of diagnosing pretty much anything and everything as ‘post-political’ – via selective invocations of Zizek, Badiou, sometimes Ranciere, perhaps Mouffe, and never mind all the conflations involved. Perhaps also via a nod in the direction of some more or less antiquarian philosophical authority, Spinoza perhaps, or Aristotle (Marx has a famous line about Aristotle not being able to quite grasp the secret of the relation between human labour, equality, and value because he lived in a society founded on slavery. It seems to me the same thought might apply equally well to the question of just how far one should extend unquestioned authority to thinkers whose notions of, say, democracy were formulated before, for example, women were enfranchised).
This is the variant of ‘the political’ under which the politics of climate change, or of human rights, or of multiculturalism all turn out to be, yes, you guessed it, not properly political at all. As menacing to the properly political, as really oriented to closing down the properly political – because in some way apparently too concerned with compromise, coalition building, negotiation, bargaining, or other grubby practices very often thought to epitomise politics, for good or ill. Occupy, and notions of the Commons, would also seem to qualify as tending towards the post-political. The analysis of the post-political serves as an adjunct to discourses of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, and shares in some of the same problems – not least the tendency to over-estimate the degree to which the success of political programmes must depend on some degree of ideological trickery at the level of ‘subjectivization’.
As I have said, the defining feature of this variant is the claim that there is one, single, dare one say essential, sense of ‘the political’, which is proper (not necessarily real, but certainly proper). There is a common enough conflation of proper politics with proper democracy in this style of work, although the stronger inflection is one which just makes the properly political a smart way of saying ‘revolution’ – a notion which, if you think about, might not be terribly political itself, just a way of wishing for short cuts.
In discussions of the post-political, one finds the culmination of one strong tendency lying behind a range of conceptualisations of ‘the political’ – a more or less explicit reassertion of the primacy of philosophical reason over the impudence of social science, and/or over those more modest concepts of philosophical practice that presume that philosophy stands alongside rather than over and above other fields of inquiry. (In this respect, the latest round of strongly philosophically grounded arguments about the post-political stand in interesting contrast to the drift in other strains of non-‘Continental’ political theory and political philosophy to want to draw closer to empirical fields of political inquiry, in say the recent work of Raymond Geuss or Jeremy Waldron).
Methodologically, the analysis of our post-political condition depends on a weird slippage – when one finds an example of partisan political action making use of consensual rhetoric, or of a political action culminating in a decision being made in the favour of some interests rather than others, or at the expense of others, then what you have found, it turns out, is not politics being done at all, but the end of politics, the closing down of the properly political. One would have thought that it’s not that difficult to recognise that politics is a game that turns on different ways of relating the partisan and the common, the partial and the universal, the specific and the general, at the level of rhetoric and action; dare one say it, even the consensual and the a(nta)gonistic (that’s what compromise, bargaining, deal-making are after all). One might also think that the literature on the politics/the political distinction has some interesting ways of understanding the dynamics of those relations. One would have thought, too, that the fact that some people end up being better at politics than others – that it’s a game of winners and losers – could be understood as an important part of the game, worthy of some analytical attention, and not just interpreted as being an effort to end of the game.
2). The analysis of post-political conditions is a simplistic rendition of one tendency within a broader range of discussions of ‘the political’. In this broader tradition, out of which the post-political is distilled, you can find all sorts of versions of the distinction between politics and the political at work, presented in a variety of relations: ones of ontological depth, ones of constitutive outsides and closures, ones of imaginary constitutions. It would be worth considering just how ‘local’ this range of literature is, across its variety – it is shaped by a distinctively late-twentieth century response to mid-century historical events, mediated by a culturally specific discourse of totalitarianism.
There is no doubt plenty of scope here for the dualistic default which leads to the diagnosis of post-political conditions, but I suspect if read ‘properly’, oops, then what remains of value in work worrying away at the relation between politics and the political in a more or less ontological, more or less phenomenological lineage, is the sense of a non-reductive relationship between the ontic and the ontological, or perhaps the actual and virtual. The ‘retreat of the political’ was never just about the retreat of proper politics, after all. The problem may be the temptations offered by the conceptual spatialisations of constitutive outsides and distributions of the sensible – all to easily lending themselves as they do to an application to stylized social facts in which the aim is to hunt down closures and exclusions and expulsions and repressions, always ready to re-energise the properly political if given half the chance.
In this variant of ‘the political’, it would seem to me that the lesson is that a particular formation of ordinary politics could always be thought of as an expression of some possible variety of ‘the political’; or perhaps as disclosing some hitherto unimagined possibility of ‘the political’. And there is no reason to suppose that these manifestations necessarily close off or exclude potentials. Why should we conceptualise politics or the political according to this economy of scarcity, after all?
The difference in interpretation I am suggesting here is something like the difference between a straightforward notion of something being lost in the translation of a text, and a more ‘Benjaminian’ notion of translation being the medium in which translat-ability is disclosed as the very life of the text. By which I mean, first, that there is nothing proper about the political or politics; and second, that in trying to think about politics and change, it might be better to look ahead rather than constantly look backwards.
3. My sense of there being a third variant of the concept of ‘the political’ is meant to gesture at a less canonical understanding – it might still have some theoretical ummph behind it, with reference to Pierre Rosanvallon for example; or Habermas even, or Latour, or Foucault, or other thinkers who less obviously belong to the canon of thinking that underwrites discussions of the political and the post-political (or sit less easily in it at least). Whether or not one can authorise this third variant of thinking about ‘the political’ by reference to appropriate thinkers, it actually seems to me to be the only interesting thing one can do with the politics/’the political’ distinction once you have read about it for the second, third or fourth time. This variant of ‘the political’ is a more resolutely genealogical understanding, departing more fully from the recurrent tendency to model discussions of the political on some more or less sophisticated understanding of ontological difference. Here, all that the concept of the political does, and all that the implied distinction that it opens up helps with, is to point you in the direction of looking at the hand-in-hand mutations of the forms and contents of politics. Of course, you still need some working notion of what counts as politics and/or political do this, but there is no reason to suppose our working definitions have to pick out a depth of ontological solidity of some sort, however fluid and wobbly those depths might turn out to be, or alight on some ahistorical notion of the properly political act. I’m not sure a genealogy of politics, or of anything faintly political, could possibly get under way if you thought that there was something proper to politics and the political. It would be a kind of contradiction in terms.
So I guess this all leaves me thinking about why the genealogical interpretation of what is, after all, a fairly simple idea (that what shows up as political in one context might not show up in others, that political issues are framed differently in different situations, that new issues and new understandings of politics can emerge, and that these boundaries are where some, not all, political action takes place), why the genealogical interpretation seems not to resonate more strongly. And why, even when it does, it easily falls back onto judgments about closures and exclusions. This might have something to do with the imperative of ‘The politics of …’ in contemporary Theory-land – the demand that each and every analysis have a political point to it. The analysis of post-political trajectories seems to be perfect for this sort of task – it lends itself easily to the challenge of having not only to describe and explain social events, but to pass judgment on them too, by providing a ready-made template for identifying closures and exclusions, naturalisations and orderings, norms enforced or norms evaded (which is, of course, what a norm is, one way or the other).
The judgement of things being or trending to the ‘post-political’ allows you to have your normative cake without having to pay the normative price: by suggesting that it is proper politics per se that is menaced, you don’t really have to go into great detail about whether particular patterns of decision or inaction are justified or not. You just need to invoke a vague, unspecified sense of proper politics as being all about contestation and questioning, perhaps calling this democracy too. This normative duplicity works not least through the persistent spatialisation of political concepts in this strain of work, allied to the ‘scarcity’-based interpretation of concept of ‘the political’. But think about it for just a moment: decisions, to take one favoured example, don’t exclude, or close things off. They are particular types of action that take place in time, and things go on after they are taken, in more or less anticipated directions. In short, diagnoses of the ‘post-political’ this-or-that have no meaningful sense of political time.
There 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).
In 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.
I 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.
As previously advertised, my paper Situating injustice in democratic theory is now published ‘for real’ in Geoforum (not open access, of course, not yet – a pre-publication version is here). It’s part of a Themed Issue on Space, Contestation and the Political, edited by David Featherstone and Benedikt Korf. My piece is a preliminary attempt to outline what follows, geographically, from taking seriously recent work in political philosophy and political theory that develops normative principles from the premiss of the ‘priority of injustice’ – including work by Sen, Honneth, Fraser, Bohman, and Forst. Other contributors are Mustafa Dikeç; Robert Meyer, Conrad Schetter, Janosch Prinz; Uma Kothari; Urs Geiser; Klaus Schlichte; and Jonathan Spencer. Topics include political violence, Carl Schmitt, exile, Arendt and Ranciere, Norbert Eilas.