by Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester
In talking about urban studies I can only talk from and for the perspective I know best: the critical urban tradition that developed out of Marxism in the 1970s, as pioneered by the likes of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey and Manuel Castells. I tried to document and contribute toward this tradition in my book Metromarxism, where I claimed some of the best urban studies has been done by certain Marxists, and some the best Marxism has been done by certain urban theorists.
If we look back at the debates that raged in the 1970s, one of the biggest was about the nature of the urban. Just what is the urban anyway? What is a city? Why should it command such interest for critical scholars? The obvious rejoinder is that the city plays a special role under capitalism — indeed was important in the birth of capitalism itself. The city assumes a twin role: an engine for capital accumulation, on the one hand, and a site for social/class struggle, on the other. It is crucial for the expansion of capitalism and for over-throwing capitalism. It is a theoretical object of curiosity because it is a political subject of necessity.
All of which bodes the question what is this “it”? In The Urban Question, Castells wondered what could we possibly mean by “city,” and what is this concept “urban”? Why urban sociology and not simply sociology? Why urban geography and not simply geography? Of course, Castells was trying to figure out the specificity of the city, for both theory and politics, and it’s a question we might still want to ponder.
If anything, the question takes on renewed significance today because our world assumes a very different urban form than it did in the 1970s. Since 2006, the majority of the world’s population is, we’re told, urbanized, with some 3.3 billion dwellers living in urban agglomerations of some guise or another; and, if trends continue, this is set to increase exponentially. By 2030, 60% of planet earth will be urban; by 2050, 75%.
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Yet beyond mere curiosity, what do these figures imply? Are they significant? Is urban studies a numbers-game anyway? In 1938, the American sociologist Louis Wirth expressed a skepticism about “measuring” the degree to which the contemporary world is “urban” from the proportion of the total population living in cities. The influence cities exert upon social life, he said, is greater than any statistical population ratio might infer. The urban isn’t a physical entity delimited in space but its very own cosmos, Wirth said, its very own “way of life.”
Never anyone terribly interested in numbers, Henri Lefebvre always said that a fuller understanding of our urban age could only be reached through conceptualization of the whole, through conceptualization of what he termed “planetary urbanization.” In 1970, Lefebvre posited “the complete urbanization society.” In his day, he said it was virtual but one day it might become real. Lefebvre is the last of a pretty extinct species: a philosopher of the city — or, better, a “metaphilosopher” of the city. I use this notion of “philosopher” in the ancient Greek tradition; not as somebody who is detached, solitary and contemplative, dealing with rarified abstractions, but as somebody who is completely engaged in politics and questions of democracy. Indeed, the very bedrock for ancient Greek philosophy were questions that linked the polis to democracy. The city, philosophy and politics were synonymous. (The philosopher Hippodamus of Miletus was the first city planner, initially proposing a grid pattern and a zoning scheme, as well as a central agora open square, that place of gathering and assembly so dear to democracy; and we know how Plato, in The Republic, said much about how cities relate to democracy — or, as in Plato’s case, to too much democracy.)
The point here is that philosophy, the city, and political engagement went together. Within the field of urban geography, particularly in UK urban geography, there are certain things that today militate against this noble philosophical tradition. One is the dominance of the positivist-empiricist tradition. Why so? The reason may be obvious in our age of “experts” and “technocrats,” in this era some describe as “post-political”: positivism has always tried to rid itself of politics behind the shield of quantification and “objectivity.” In that sense, positivism/empiricism is a convenient methodology for technocrats trying to find consensus without conflict. After all, their opinions are neutral and expert; their knowledge isn’t value-laden, right? Yours, if it’s critical and theoretically partisan, is warped, ideological.
The second reason for the prioritization of empirical data — which ties in neatly with the first reason — is that it can raise money for the corporate university, can more easily capture grant money, more easily produce a “knowledge commodity,” a knowledge that may be calculated and evaluated in an institution’s competitive yearnings and chart-topping desires. Very little money, if any, is doled out to work on theory, therefore theory/philosophy is unimportant because it is financially unimportant. To be sure, it is extremely difficult to evaluate and judge its “impact” on any spreadsheet.
You no longer think about a problem: you spend your time thinking about filling in a grant proposal about a problem. This creates a certain superficiality to the idea of doing “research”: research constitutes amassing data; it rarely means thinking deeply about a problem, certainly not formulating concepts about this problem, and then engaging in a politics around that problem. This isn’t helpful in the development of deeper, critical understandings of the urban problematic. Arguably, it creates an discipline that is at heart anti-intellectual. And anti-intellectualism doesn’t “impact” well in the long run.
On the other flank, neither does sloppy theorizing, or theorizing divorced from political and social engagement. Consequently, there are dangers of “pure” theorizing, too, especially the sociologicalization of certain forms of continental philosophy, and here we might indict those who try to “adopt” or “instrumentalize” in some kind of disembodied abstract way the usual suspects, thinkers like Badiou, Rancière, Zizek, Deleuze & Guattari, and even Lefebvre. “Thoughts without content are empty,” said Kant in Critique of Pure Reason; although he also said “thoughts without concepts are blind.” And so we hobble along, between analytical emptiness and conceptual blindness…
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Still, a reloaded urban studies doesn’t mean middle-ground: it suggests a thorough reframing of the urban question, of dealing adequately with the ontological question, that of being in the world, of being in an urban world. Within this conceptualization we need to dispense with all the old chestnuts between North and South, between developed and underdeveloped worlds, between urban and rural, between urban and regional, between city and suburb, and so forth. (Just as we need to dispense with the old distinctions between public and private, state and economy, politics and technocracy.) From this standpoint, frontier lines don’t pass between any North-South or urban-rural divide but reside “within the phenomenon of the urban itself,” as Lefebvre says in The Urban Revolution. Hence the need to conceptualize and politicize how the globe is no longer demarcated through definitive splits between strict opposites: all demarcations and frontier lines are immanent within urban society, between dominated peripheries and dominating centers that exist all over the planet.
The notion of immanence is writ large in Marx’s as well as Spinoza’s thought, and is instructive for our own urban problematic. Immanence is everywhere is Marx’s vocabulary. Marx said that value is immanent to capitalism, so is the world market, which is the very basis of capitalism, of what it is and what is emergent in its very Being; we could easily transpose “urban” for “world market” without losing any clarity of Marx’s meaning. As for Spinoza, he called the immanent force of nature and reality substance. Substance is the bedrock content to human reality, perceivable and conceivable only through its manifold attributes. Substance is, of course, Spinoza’s pantheist theory of God, his notion that God is immanent in all reality, including ourselves; but maybe the form of this notion holds, too, for the immanent nature of the urban, for its complex ontological tissuing, for the fabric that now clothes our daily lives.
What is being affirmed here is the urban as a single substance whose attributes — the built environment, transport infrastructure, population densities, topographical features, social mixes, political governance — are all the formal expressions of what pervades it ontologically. We might even say that the “city” is an attribute of the urban. These attributes are how the urban looks and how it can be seen and known. What we might also say, following this, is that the urban isn’t out there, necessarily observable and measurable, but that it is immanent in our lives, an ontology not an epistemology: it isn’t a transitive attribute of our society but the immanent substance of our society.
Within this conceptualization, it’s possible to conceive planetary urbanization as the progressive production of undergrowth as well as overgrowth. In other words, the urban isn’t simply bricks and mortar, high-rise buildings and autoroutes: it manifests itself as a process that produces skyscrapers as well as unpaved streets, highways as well as back roads, by-waters and marginal zones that feel the wrath of the world market — its absence as well as its presence. This process involves dispossession of land, of sequestering of the commons, of eminent domain. The urban now signifies a new form of “dependency,” justifying cultural, technological and economic obsolescence in rural economies. In the 1970s, the peasant sociologist Andrew Pearse spoke of the expansion of an “Urban-Industrial-Complex” into the world’s rural areas, which sanctioned agricultural production through an urban reward system. Today, we’d have to rename that complex an “Urban-Financial-Complex,” with a reward system that penalizes and disciplines agricultural production, doing so planetarily, doing so from multiple centers of urban corporate power.
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We should stop using the term city, Lefebvre says, and adopt instead the terminology “urban society.” Urban society, he was fond of saying, “is built upon the ruins of the city.” The city is a pseudo-concept, a historical concept, not an analytical reality. In pushing for the notion of urban society Lefebvre is asking us to open the floodgates, to quit bounding something, to give up on solidity and the security of an absolute and embrace something relative and open, something becoming. We should leave behind the form of the city and embrace the apparent formlessness of urban society.
I say “apparent” because we might remember there’s nothing formless as such about Lefebvre’s conception of space; he was keen to emphasize that space is global, fragmented and hierarchal in one fell swoop. It is a mosaic of stunning complexity, punctuated and textured by centers and peripheries, yet a mosaic in which the “commodity-form” gives this patterning its underlying definition. If we wanted to delve into the cell-like molecular structure of this urban substance, of this urban space, we could perhaps see it as an immense accumulation of commodities, bounded by the “commodity-form,” even while its “value-form” is boundless. The “commodity-form” vis-à-vis the “value-form” is a key distinction Marx makes at the beginning of Capital. It was one way, after all, in which he could talk about how things have particularity and generality at the same time, have intrinsic form yet are also extrinsically formless. I’d like to see the urban pictured in the same analytical light, as something with structure and form, as something as functionally chaotic — Lefebvre’s “rational delirium” — yet as fractally ordered as a series of subatomic particles.
We have to be imaginative about how we might conceive this reality. We could see it the way an atomic physicist might see it but really we are talking about something very vast — a terrestrial planetary universe. The commodity-form of space would represent the place-bound, fixed built-form, the built landscape of what Sartre in Critique of Dialectical Reason called the “practico-inert.” Meanwhile, the value-form would constitute a diffusive web of social relations, networked and stretched beyond place. If we wanted to push it further, the interaction between this value- and commodity-form is a bit like the way Roquentin, the protagonist from Sartre’s Nausea, interacts with the world the inanimate objects, and the nausea that that engenders for living, conscious beings: how this inanimate, fixed world conditions and provides the passive frame for our active lives, and how we must somehow render it dynamic. Now our nausea is political and collective.
So within this conception, just what is the specificity of the urban, if indeed there is any specificity? There is and there isn’t specificity, since it’s a specificity of complementarity, an understanding that sees the urban as a complex circuit card, as a networked tissue, as a mosaic, stitched together with pieces of delicate fabric. Outside of human woof and weft the urban creates nothing, is nothing. The urban serves no purpose and has no reality outside of human reality, outside of exchange and union, outside of human proximity and concentration, outside of human encounter and intensity. Nodes of intensity that resonate, that connect with other nodes of intensity, that fuse together and create energy and electricity, incandescent light.
“The signs of the urban,” Lefebvre says in The Urban Revolution, “are signs of assembly: the things that promote assembly (streets, squares, spaces, surfaces, sidewalks and buildings) and the requirements for assembly (seats, lights). The urban is most forcefully evoked by the constellation of lights at night, especially when flying over a city — the dazzling impression of brilliance, neon, street signs, streetlights, incitements of various kinds, the simultaneous accumulation of wealth and signs.” The urban, he adds, is “pure form: a place of encounter, assembly, simultaneity. This form has no specific content, but is a center of attraction and life. It is an abstraction, but unlike a metaphysical entity, the urban is a concrete abstraction, associated with practice. Living creatures, the products of industry, technology and wealth works of culture, ways of living… Its contents (things, objects, people, situations) are mutually exclusive because they are diverse, but inclusive because they are brought together and imply their mutual presence. The urban is both form and receptacle, void and plenitude, super-object and non-object, supra-consciousness and the totality of consciousnesses.”
Few, perhaps, have so beautifully defined something so indefinable.
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Why posit “urban society”? What’s Lefebvre up to here, what’s his point? Perhaps it isn’t just an analytical trope he’s employing so much as a political strategy. Again, Spinoza can come to our aid. When he wrote Ethics and affirmed substance as the bedrock of life and nature, he coined three different kinds of knowledge. The first was the sort that occurred at the level of everyday life, with its chaos and disorder, a level totally legitimate and real for life yet an inadequate idea for fully understanding that life; the second kind of knowledge sees a bigger pattern of human relationships behind that chaos, understanding the interconnectivity of human life, the common notions that keep it together, intact, more or less. With a third kind of knowledge that understanding is pushed even further, to an intuitive reason of human experience, and here I am thinking that this might better describe urban life, our future becoming, the substance to our lives, and the basis for improved and sustained common notions.
The major reason Spinoza developed this third kind of knowledge was that he saw something more fruitful at stake, something open to human beings: a society that affirms its dependence and interdependence of all, as a tissue of collective belonging. Similarly, Henri Lefebvre thinks there is something more humanly fruitful and politically worthwhile in affirming his own third kind of knowledge: urban society. The capacity for extended and deepening common notions is thereby augmented, provided separations and segregations can be warded off, kept at bay. By reaching out to understand the common ingredients that bond us we can then reach inward to understand ourselves as both a people and individuals. Such is the promise of a “third kind” of urban knowledge. That seems to be Lefebvre’s point; and even if it isn’t, we should make this point for him.
Lefebvre might have called this knowledge a “right to the city,” but he also saw it as a new kind of citizenship, of revolutionary citizenship, based upon encounters between people, encounters that reveal themselves though the negation of distance and though the reaching out to distance. Citizenship is the point of convergence of both, a dialectic that is both a perception and a horizon, a structure of feeling as well as a new way of seeing ourselves and our planet. It is a citizenship conceived as something urban, as something territorial yet one in which territoriality is narrower and broader than both “city” and “nationality”; a citizen of the block, of the neighborhood, becomes a citizen of the world, a universal citizen rooted in place, encountering fellow citizens across the corridor and at the other end of the planet. Urbanization makes this sense of belonging possible, negating distance between everybody, piling people on top of one another, next to one another. Meanwhile, social media helps people reach out to distance, extend the distance of their lives, the horizons of their ways of seeing, of seeing themselves and other people.
A new kind of citizenship might emerge out of this, an urban citizenship of workers without salaried work, of students without careers (the NINJA generation: “No Income, No Jobs and Assets”), of poor and middle-class people without homes, of retirees without pensions — a Here Comes Everybody (HCE) of people sharing a single planetary domain, one great big shit pot together. In La pensée marxiste et la ville (1972), Lefebvre expressed a simple formula: the more cities upsize and the more urban society emerges, the more steady salaried work will downsize. Urban society will somehow be a “post-work” society in the sense that Marx hinted at in the Grundrisse, when we all eventually get “suspended” from the “immediate form of production,” giving rise to a latent political constituency whose only real terrain left for struggle won’t be the workplace but the urban itself.
We’re back with the ancient Greeks — or maybe with the-not-so-ancient-Greeks — for whom politics was (is) always experienced and enacted in the urban agora; to that extent nothing much has changed under planetary urbanization, excepting that the agora has now gotten bigger and vaster — a virtual and physical world combined into one. (Two and half thousand years ago the citizens of Athens didn’t work; they were the aristocratic rulers who presided over the common folk — the slaves and strangers. Today, similarly, a new Greek citizenry emerges without work; not because they’re aristocrats but because of economic crisis and Eurozone austerity measures.) Today’s agora is a new kind of “common field” (Sartre) in which the passivity of the world of corporate things, of the built financial landscape, of the spectacular “practico-inert,” is rendered active and affective, because it is filled with ordinary people who, united by common notions, create a function rather than respond to one (like a hoard of shoppers).
There are those of course who fear this agora, who want to close it down physically, seal it off virtually, censor cyberspace — the agoraphobics. But there are others who know that nowadays it isn’t workers of the world who unite, who have a world to win, as Marx announced in the Manifesto; it’s more that people have a whole world to occupy, to occupy as their own backyards. There is a ruling class in this process of planetary urbanization, this class process of neo-Haussmannization; they are global and now put the infamous Baron’s spadework to shame. But, in the wake of Occupy, they’re nonetheless nervous. Neo-Haussmannization tears into the entire planetary urban fabric, and fronts the progressive production of core and periphery, of centers of power and wealth and of spaces of dispossession and marginalization; and this everywhere, with little concern for either city or countryside.
Critical urban theory and philosophy must comprehend and create a new terrain for political interventions — for militant, revolutionary politics — in a process that is itself revolutionary. Indeed, as Lefebvre says, “the urban” is revolutionary, and, as such, the revolution will be urban. That in a single line summarizes the gist of The Urban Revolution. It’s a project that still lives on, in both directions. And a lot of conceptual and political steady work remains to be done, in the right direction.