Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Time and Space

So, as part of my blogging renaissance, I've taken to reading more blogs as well. Or at least going back to those few blogs that I've read at least once and trying to "follow" them. BLDGBLOG is one such site, and though my blog is primarily concerned with history, and therefore time, I'm also interested in places and spaces -- they have a history too (and play a role in other histories). I was particularly interested in Geoff Manaugh's discussion of three new books that examine the various links between military ideology and planning and the development of cities both at home and abroad.

Discussing the rise of "feral cities" -- labeled elsewhere as "megacities" or "megaslums" -- Manaugh notes how recent scholarship has uncovered a disturbing historical and contemporary relationship between military planners and city planners leading to an increasing sense that modern urban spaces are "cities under siege," which is also the title of one of the books that he reviews. From his review:

In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores "the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life," including "dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society." This is just part of a "deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism," one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time....

In any case, Graham's interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed "as intrinsically threatening or problematic places," Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek's book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I'm reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright's oft-repeated remark that "the modern is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else." ...

On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a "city under siege."

So, what follows is my far less measured response than Manaugh's review:

Uhm, really? Ever since Mike Davis’s brilliantly disturbing excavation of dystopic Los Angeles, critical geographers and urban studies scholars have painted a picture of the post-modern city as a site of unceasing surveillance, state-sanctioned violence, and an overbearing police presence. The books reviewed on BLDGBLOG.com, Joe Flood’s, The Fires, Mike Davis’s recent Planet of Slums, and Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Seige, continue this critique. What emerges in both impressionistic generality and some piercing qualitative detail, is a radical shortfall from the hopes and dreams of the urbanists of the 1960s-1990s, and the prophecy of a nightmarish future for urban dwellers the world over.

In fact, that might be giving Mike Davis too much credit. Film has long been fearful and critical of urban spaces: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, not to mention the more contemporary versions of it -- Blade Runner, Robocop, Police Academy (1-7), as well as Minority Report and Children of Men. In other words, we get it, cities suck.

With important caveats, however, I’m just not convinced.

First, I am less familiar with the current efforts to police the megaslums of the Global South, and my knowledge of these places comes only from personal travel. Dar es Salaam felt broken while Accra just seemed sprawling. Neither, however, felt too terribly "policed." But maybe these are too small to fit into the category that these books talk about. One wonders how many cities do make the cut? Or, how much of the world’s population currently resides there? Are the smaller urban areas necessarily going to “mature” into these dystopias of state-sponsored surveillance? Why the need for prophecy?

Second, I’m uncomfortable making any real claims here not just because I haven’t read this literature, but, more importantly, my critiques will probably collapse under their own contradictory weight given the criticism that I am going to make about such dystopic fantiasies when it comes to cities defined as “western” “modern” “first world” or in the “global north.”
The crux of my qualms is this: does this scholarship recapitulate the ideology of fear that it seeks to excavate? Here’s how it might do this: first, bringing to light the subaltern existence of the inhabitants of these “megaslums” and “feral cities,” even if to expose the structural inequalities inherent in uneven development, seems to fetishize urban poverty both at home and abroad. (And thus my fear, does my rant also rely on problematic distinctions between "first" and "third" world?) 
I mean, I love L.A. So do the people who live there. It seems an arrogant and paternalistic judgment of the bare life existence of the people who dwell in these places to take such a consistently negative view of all aspects of urban existence. Mike Davis the intellectual descendant of Jacob Riis. Can someone discuss the people that live in these places as something other than a set peice to demonstrate how crappy new urban areas are? Is this just the geographical equivalent to a crude version of “false consciousness”? Can I at least get some divided consciousness up in here?

Also, can we name a city in the United States other than Detroit where this is really the case? Poor fucking Detroit; it’s the Critical Urbanists’ whipping boy. It's so unanimously reviled, so consistently made the poster child of the supposed complete failure of cities (and the inevitability of all otehr cities to fail in the future) that my friends who recently moved to Ann Arbor (yes, she's an academic at Michigan), parade their love of Detroit like a badge on their sleeve, a fact which further brings to light the radical disjuncture between these nightmarish visions and at least some peoples’ lived reality (though, I'm sure the response here will be that Ann Arbor residents are simply slumming it).
But really, what makes inhabitants of these hellish spaces stay in these places if they suck so bad? I fully accept the fact that geographical mobility is not a simple question of “free will,” nor is the globalized wage labor market one that encourages “individual choice” based on something as seemingly innocuous but wholly loaded as “preference.” (Those “Most liveable city” lists are a particularly insidious ideological consequence and constitutor of neo-liberalism. As if the whole world can simply “shop” for a place to live irrespective of all factors of geography -- distance from natal geographies and kin networks, regional economies, career paths, and the labor market in general. This might be the ultimate “consumption” of place.) I realize the annihilation of space and time is a goal but ultimately a practical fiction. Still, these cities draw inhabitants to them for reasons other than simple economics, and inhabitants concievably get up in the morning with the capacity to do more than just endure their existence. So, what gives?
I wonder, given the relative gains and improvements in the “broken cities” of the deindustrialized 1970s U.S., have these scholars simply exported their critique because of its basic bankruptcy in the United States? Guess what? New York City kind of works. Los Angeles, the Westin Hotel included (I’m looking at you Fredric Jameson) is, for many of its residents, rich and poor alike, a decent place to live. 

Or, worse yet might this scholarship be engaging in some kind of unintentionally ironic cultural imperialism? No doubt the police presence in American cities is more sophisticated and entrenched, but can we really draw comparisons between Sadr City and Omaha? I applaud their provocation, but in the end kind of chuckle at the absurdity of the comparison. And that absurdity only draws our attention back to the cities of the Global South in a prurient gaze, glad to be living in the modern American ecotopias Portland, Ore., or Bozeman, Mont., or Brooklyn, New York.
My intent here is not to deny the core truth of these trenchant critiques: someone needs to be the person making the most radical argument in the room. But I think it’s important to recognize some of the problems that this particular line of thinking smuggles into the discussion. I, for one, don’t pretend to know a way around this dilemma, but I wonder if there’s a scholarship that can both reckon with and reconcile the continuing workability of many cities on the planet and the ways that the people of the world inhabit them. And maybe here is a place to come back to the fundamental distinction between (and discomfort I have with) the Global North / Global South. I am entirely convinced that there are broken cities. Should we be surprised that Sadr City is listed among them? Or, for that matter, Lagos? Both represent places constructed by the basest and most unforgiving inequalities of global capitalism. But New York? L.A.? I mean, I love L.A.

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