II: Rethinking global urbanisms
THINKING URBAN GRAMMARS
Thinking urban grammars: An interview with Ash Amin
Why talk about ‘global urbanism’? What is lost or gained through using that specific term? How might research uncovering and mapping urbanisms across the world connect to policy, practice, and the making of publics? What might a focus on urbanism as emergent offer our understanding of the city and the urban today? What is the place of provisional concepts in urban thought, and how might we think about the rigour of conceptual work?
These were the key questions we explored in our interview with Ash Amin, presented here. Ash is one of the most distinguished and influential social scientists and urbanists in the world. Across decades of insightful and powerfi.il writing, he has elucidated the urban condition, opened up new directions of conceptual possibility, and defined new questions for how we think and intervene in the urban social. This has included work on ontologies of urbanism, the politics of urban multiculture, the changing form of the urban political, the underpinnings of urban endurance, and the possibilities of renewed urban imaginations. His recent books include Seeing Like a City (co-written with Nigel Thrift, 2017) and Releasing the Commons (со-edited with Phil Howell, 2016). He is based at the University of Cambridge, where he is professor of geography and fellow of Christ’s College.The interview took place on 8 July 2019.
The interview was wide-ranging in scope.We opened with ‘global urbanism’ and moved from there into a series of related themes, including influencing policy, generating publics, finding a language, making concepts operational, working with emergence and provisional understandings, and more. These different themes are not, however, digressions but instead ways of thinking and doing global urbanism, even if they aren’t always explicitly stated as such in the interview.
As we opened the interview, Ash began with what he called an “agnostic question”: Do we need a term like ‘global urbanism’ at all? What can we expect a term like that to achieve for urban thought? “I think we’re going to struggle”, he said, “to find a word that maintains the plurality and heterogeneity of approach and thinking”. This intellectual risk, he went on, is that a term like ‘global urbanism’ can become a label, and labels cariy' a ‘micropolitics’ that might not be up to the job of inciting inquiry to find ways of approaching the sheer diversity of “the city in the world and the world in the city”. He began instead not with global urbanism but with the term ‘urban world’.
ASH AMIN: I think it [the term ‘urban world’] does two things. One is that it signals the world, the earth that we’re in. A second is that it implies a worldly ontology' in which all things are part of a much greater entity, at which point the intuitive distinctions between local, national, and global, disappear. I would want to work more with terms like “worlding”, “worldly”, “world”.
COLIN MCFARLANE: In Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak (2005) distinguishes between the term “global” and the term “planetarity”. While “global” is a striated depiction inevitably caught up with a human-centredness, “planeterity” was much more about recognising that humans are just one actor, albeit often a powerfully destructive actor, that cannot adequately comprehend the plurality and scale of the planet.
ASH: Yes, and the making of the social occurs through the interrelationships - the indivisibilities between the human, the material, the infrastructural, the technological, the eco-habitat. Terms like “world”, “worlding”, “earthly”, perhaps “planetary”, probably have more purchase. So, for me, if“global urbanism” is to mean anything, it has to be very much about how cities and other urban formations are what they are because of the very intersectional nature of all things living and dead, which take on particular meanings and particular intensities of combinations. Perhaps “global urbanism” captures some of that, but to me, it doesn’t quite capture these rhizomatic associations.
MICHELE LANCIONE: I agree with that. The way we’re working towards “global urbanism” is as a placeholder for different ways of starting to get a grip on this kind of complexity. The question here is, how can we convey a sense that global urbanism is not yet another concept to explain conditions but is instead a placeholder aimed at opening out views on the complexity of what the city has become or maybe has always been?
COLIN: I think your idea, Michele, of the placeholder is precisely the way we have been thinking about it as we have gone about this volume. Global urbanism is not a position we’re trying to advocate but instead as a route to getting to - to paraphrase what you’ve said before, Ash - the urban as a kind of clearing- and sorting house for the world and as a space of combination and transformation that is always spatially stretched in different ways.
So for us, this kind of project was important as part of that larger task, and I think you described that really well.
But I want to ask you about the place of the city in all this. But what kind of entity is the city here? Particularly at a moment when urbanisation is increasingly a story of expansion into peripheries of different sorts, and new geographies are being formed and anticipated. And how do we intervene in that context of changing urbanisation? It seems to me that to a large extent, that depends on your conception of the kind of entity a city now is.
ASH: I think the tension here is between the processual and the ascribed. Or the processual and the inherited. So, cities will expand in rhizomatic ways. That throws up a challenge to the presumptions and instruments of law, of planning, of state, less so the corporate - which kind of goes with the rhizomatic. If urban process exceeds the juridical boundaries of a city - of planning authorities, municipal authorities, and so on - that raises a problem for the latter. The spilling over is treated variously as non-urban, or peri-urban, or extra-urban, or informal, or neglected, and so on.The challenge that we face now analytically and politically has to do with the squaring of the circle between urban ontology, which is now extraordinarily trans-territorial and relational in its constitution, and the categories of government and governance, which are entirely territorially fixed, scalar, and Russian doll-like.
At the same time, this ontology' also includes a lot within the local that is largely ignored or‘minoritised’,for example, forms of urbanism such as neighbourhoods made and managed by poor communities, producing its own rules of habitation. The question then becomes, how do you frame all that life that is exuberant outside the ascribed territorial? That’s the big challenge, I think.