Social and Material (dis)Organization of the City

As I read Harvey’s piece, he introduces three imbricated modalities of the city: The existing order (actual, capitalist), the revolutionary force (potential, ‘leftist’), and the city itself as a physical assemblage of spaces. Whereas the two former are connected to human activity as a production of value (thus, removing the focus of the struggle against capitalism from the factories to the cities), the materiality of the city seems to serve as a backdrop for this activity. In fact, Harvey does direct our attention to this question: “Is the city (or a system of cities) merely a passive site (or pre-existing network) –the place of appearance–where deeper currents of political struggle are expressed? On the surface it might seem so. Yet it is also clear that certain urban environmental characteristics are more conducive to rebellious protests than others” (Harvey, 2012, p. 117). In this respect, he seems to denote that there is something in the urban environment that serves the purpose of revolutionary struggles; but, also points out that urban planning may also serve the existing order, such as Haussmann’s Paris or the 1960s urban renewal projects in the US. However, just like events like Paris Commune demonstrated, an insurrection in this ‘ordered space’ is still possible: It is a matter of re-organizing the activities of labor (that is, production of surplus-value) in a way that one does not benefit the capitalist order.

What seems to be central, then, in Harvey’s theorization is the notion of organization of activities and (urban) spaces. But, what about the disorganization of the urban space; that is, an actual rebellious disorganization that, for example took place in Los Angeles in 1992 (not just reorganization of human activities, but phenomena like burning buildings and smashed property)? Despite the fact that the highways that were built in the 1960s in New York City can be considered as organized form of such damage, I am curious to find out more about the politics of the aesthetics of this kind of material rearrangement of the city; namely through insurrection/riot/rebellion. This interests me since it is more than easy to come up with ‘post-apocalyptic’ (in other words, post-capitalist) images of cities after some massive socio-political event that radically transformed the urban everyday life into a struggle (the materiality of the city, then, demonstrates the change in the existing order). Does this kind of material disorganization have any political relevance when trying to theorize the idea of urban social struggle? I would think so, but I don’t seem to find it from Harvey…



3 thoughts on “Social and Material (dis)Organization of the City

  1. Social and Material (dis)Organization of the CityI’ve been thinking along these same lines but more in terms of the compulsion to order space, rather than the disorder that arises in the wake of social struggle. But to stay closer to the questions you raise: I’m reminded of an article by Yael Navaro-Yashin, “Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge”.

    In it she investigates how the affect of melancholy arises in the Turkish Cypriots who appropriated space and objects from their Greek counterparts during the mid-70s war and partition of the country, and uncovers evidence of melancholy in everyday parlance that reveals the residents’ feelings toward appropriated property: specifically their use of the word “loot” in a self-deprecating way. Interviews with residents of an area near a military border reveal feelings of confinement and suffocation, which she interprets as a relationship between negative affective states and the aesthetic of ruination amongst which these people live.

    This obviously isn’t politics directly, but it’s certainly an insight into the affective engagement with a ruinous environment, or as Holland says, citing D&G’s terminology, an “incorporeal transformation.” And though Harvey does actually mention the three elements of schizoanalysis — “political and economic powers of capital, along with its hegemonic ideological practices and its powerful grasp upon political subjectivities” (p. 120) — I don’t think his disciplinary background really gives him the ammunition he needs to engage with their interactions.

  2. Pingback: Response to “Social and Material (dis)Organization of the City” | Nomad Scholarship

  3. Without a doubt, I think it is safe to call him revolutionary-lite, as he gives less than 1/3 of his attention to title content. He seems most solid when he gives an account of an historical process… In the interest of discussion, I thought there were a few moments that seem worth exploring, outside of the two chapters selected for the reading.

    In the preface, he gives nod to an ‘insurgent citizenship’ and the ongoing struggles over who gets to shape the city- and importantly, in whose ‘image’. His critique over the idea of the ‘right to the city’ I think is one worth thinking about. Lefebvre’s city is something that ‘no longer exists’, and given that, now functions as an ‘empty signifier’ in which anyone call fill with meaning, the inhabitants have the same ‘right’ as the developers who make it. I actually don’t like this answer, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, either.

    His move back to Marx opens up a space for struggle, “‘between equal rights force decides.’ The definition of the right is itself an object of struggle, and that struggle has to proceed concomitantly with the struggle to materialize it.” (xv) In the Creation of the Urban Commons, he argues that a Commons arises out of social relations, rather than as a ‘given’. If social relations as spatial practices constitute the commons, and taken together with ‘struggle’, it seems like he gives a space for rebellious organization alongside more anodyne interactions and everything in between.

    But I don’t think it’s really there. While he offers struggle as an important element in which to reconstruct the city in an image that is palatable to the ‘people’, he also seems to want consensus in that struggle.

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