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« Assembling the Social and Urban Heterogeneity | Main | CTlab Symposium on Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction »

Opening Remarks

First, my thanks to those who have agreed to be part of this discussion as well as to Michael at CTlab for setting the forum up. In the wake of the publication of Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction I am in the process of formulating future projects. Critical commentary on the argument I have advanced will be essential to shaping those projects. I’m grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to discuss urbicide and the questions it raises and look forward to your thoughts over the next few days.

I’d like to take the opportunity afforded by these opening remarks to do the following:

  1. Provide some background about the initial provocation that led to my deployment of the concept of urbicide.
  2. Sketch out the central conceptual dynamics of the book’s argument
  3. Outline the key conceptual and political consequences of the argument
  4. Comments on how I will develop the argument in the future.

Apologies for the length of these comments but I thought it important to outline a few points at the outset. Apologies also for the schematic and technical nature of the comments at times –hopefully there will be a chance to illuminate some of the jargon over the next few days.


The origins of this project lie in two events that were central to the 1992-95 Bosnian war: the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar and the siege of Sarajevo. The destruction of the Old Bridge was elevated to iconic status. This iconic status risked implying that only cultural heritage was under attack in the Bosnian war. However, the siege of Sarajevo showed that this was not the case. The siege was notable for its widespread destruction of the urban environment beyond those buildings that could be construed as cultural heritage. This widespread destruction was not confined to Sarajevo, but common throughout the Bosnian war. As I started to think about what such destruction entailed it became clear that there were other cases of widespread destruction of the urban environment: the Israel/Palestine conflict and Chechnya to name two.

There are, of course extant accounts of the destruction of built environments in war: e.g., military necessity/collateral damage; destruction of cultural heritage. These accounts are all flawed, however, when it comes to accounting for the widespread destruction of the built environment: the military necessity argument by the deliberate, non-proportional widespread nature of targeting of the built environment; collateral damage by the intentional targeting of buildings; cultural destruction by the way in which it was not only outstanding items of culture that were destroyed.

This raised the question of how to understand this widespread destruction of buildings. I found an intriguing initial interpretation in an article written by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic. In an elegy for the Old Bridge in New Republic Drakulic reflected on the impact of two separate photographs: one of a woman who has had her throat cut in an massacre in a Bosnian village and one in which the banks of the river Neretva are exposed in the wake of the destruction of the Old Bridge. Looking at these two photographs, Drakulic asks ‘why do I feel more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than the image of the woman?’. She goes on to reply:

Perhaps it is because I see my own mortality in the collapse of the bridge, not in the death of the woman. We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a...[bridge] something else. The bridge...was built to outlive us…Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us - but the bridge is all of us.[i]

For Drakulic the Stari Most must be understood as something which is experienced collectively. That which is experienced collectively offers the collective the possibility of duration as a community: in short, both a future and a past. Drakulic’s remarks require an inversion of that understanding of the world which portrays subjects living out their lives centre-stage against an ephemeral background. Instead, Drakulic is suggesting that it is ‘life’ which is ephemeral and that the ‘world’ must be understood as being constituted by that which was previously thought to be the mere background for activity: buildings.

Drakulic’s 'Elegy' thus offers a provocative understanding of the destruction of the built environment. Central to it are two themes that are constitutive of my argument concerning urbicide: firstly the idea that the destruction of buildings is important as a form of violence in its own right not simply as an adjunct to the destruction of human life; secondly that buildings are constitutive of some form of common experience.

Urbicide: Key Dynamics

In order to outline a satisfactory account of widespread urban destruction I turned my attention to the concept of urbicide: literally the killing of cities. This is a concept with a origins in discussions of urban planning (e.g., Huxtable, Berman[ii]), but increasingly applied to the destruction of built environments in various conflicts (e.g., Graham). What is urbicide?

Urbicide comprises the killing of cities. Lexically it draws on a close kinship with genocide. Insofar as it shares the ‘-cide’ or killing element of genocide we might argue that both urbicide and genocide comprise a similar logics of destruction. However, insofar as urbs is substituted for genos we might say that urbicide and genocide refer to common logics of destruction aimed at very different targets.

Genocide is an annihilatory logic that seeks to destroy a wider existential quality rather than simply a certain number of individuals. Urbicide shares this annihilatory logic. In urbicide buildings are not destroyed because of what they represent in themselves, but because they are each constitutive of a wider existential quality: urbanity.

They question is thus, what does this urbanity that urbicide seeks to eradicate comprise and what would its loss entail? Here I turn to Louis Wirth’s argument that heterogeneity comprises the defining characteristic of urbanity. Urbicide is thus the destruction of buildings insofar as they are constitutive of heterogeneity.

This, however, raises two further questions:

How are buildings constitutive of heterogeneity? Here I draw on Martin Heidegger’s understanding of the spatiality of being developed in Being and Time. Essentially for Heidegger, our existences in the world are a matter of interaction with objects. Objects tell us what we are doing and where we are., As built objects, buildings thus orient and constitute existences. The building, for example has a certain relation to another building and thus positions its inhabitant or observer as being here not there, and so on. In this sense I read Heidegger’s work as implying a form of materialist phenomenology in which objects are precisely that through which our experience of the world unfolds (in this respect I realise that there is much to be gained from Latour’s reading of the role of the object in assemblages). Two consequences follow from Heidegger’s argument: firstly, existence is not an intentional act of cognition, but unfolds in and through material assemblages; secondly, things/buildings are fundamentally public and thus always imply the possibility of the existence of others. It is in this second sense that buildings are constitutive of heterogeneity. Each time I encounter a building its publicness informs me that I am not alone, that this object that makes my world in a particular way does a similar thing for others (and thus implies the presence of those others). This is consistent with Heidegger’s account of Mitsein in Being and Time in which being-with is implied by things (clothes, boats, fields).

What is the nature of this heterogeneity? Heidegger, notoriously, failed to elaborate his understanding of heterogeneity/Mitsein/Being-with preferring, rather, to privilege being over difference. In Urbicide, therefore, I turn to Jean-Luc Nancy’s post-Heideggerian account of community in order to elaborate on the nature of heterogeneity. Nancy notes that ‘being-with’ derives from an irreducible relationality. Relationality entails all identity being derived in relation to some form of otherness. Nancy captures the essence of this idea in his contention that even being alone must be understood as a form of relationality defined by the absence of others. It is thus only because of others that aloneness has any content. This relational understanding of being leads Nancy to portray the world as being composed of what he calls a ‘reticulated multiplicity’. In other words a series of lines at which the relation between self and other is constituted. The world is thus a very complicated set of borders between self and other. It is important to note here that, contrary to the classical vision of global politics put forward in the discipline of International Relations, these borders are not conceived of as empty spaces between fully formed selves and others. Rather they are conceived of as lines at which a self runs out and becomes an other. Being thus unfolds not from its centre, but from the lines where it encounters (and constitutes) its other. I interpret the being-with that emerges from Nancy’s account as what Foucault and Connolly have referred to as ‘agonistic’. Being-with is a continual process of the negotiation of borders at which our identities are constituted in relation to others – a continual negotiation of the line where self runs out and other begins. Agonism is a dynamic process, a process of struggle – sometimes violent, sometimes forceful, sometimes constructive. It is a ceaseless movement of negotiation with, and provocation by, difference.

Political Consequences

Urbicide comprises a response, by regimes predicated on homogeneity, to the ceaseless provocation by difference that is characteristic of agonistic being-with. Urbicide thus comprises the destruction of the public objects that are constitutive of a public urban spatial realm which always admits of the presence of otherness. Urbicide tries negate the ceaseless provocation of agonism by translating it into territorial antagonism though destruction. Destruction creates dead zones between enclaves of homogeneity. It thus tries to minimise the possibility for agonistic provocation by trying to erase the reminders of the possible presence of others in the built environment. It thus takes agonistic being-with and translates it into antagonistic being-separate. Obviously, if left uncontested, or enshrined in a document such as the Dayton Accords, such a process can give the appearance of normalising homogeneity.

 …and conceptual consequences

At the core of Urbicide is an argument that the material environment is a constitutive element of being. Such an argument stands against two forms of what I call "anthropocentrism":

1. The anthropocentrism of ‘humanist’ arguments. Put briefly, the majority of accounts of political violence are focused on violence(s) done to the human body (individual and collective). The destruction of things is only important in a secondary way as a means to the ends of destroying the human body. This argument contests such an understanding of violence. In so doing it follows Heidegger’s argument in The Question Concerning Technology about the enframing of nature as a realm of objects, fundamentally different to, and of secondary philosophical concern for, human beings.

2. The anthropocentrism of the individual. A large amount of political theory is predicated on the figure of the individual understood in terms of the human body. The individual is taken to be conterminous with the skin of the individual. And yet this account of urbicide argues that senses of individuality are only worked out in relation to others and through built things. The idea of the individual as the basis for political theory thus needs to be seen – like the idea of distance as a fundamental determinant of space – as an abstract reflection on the more fundamental experience of being-with-others via things. This would then call for a more imaginative political theory.

Directions For Future Travel

Having finished this book, where would I take the argument next? Here I would make three points:

1. Urbanisation of security: urbicide is, to my mind part of a wider array of violences that are focussed on, and defined by, their urban characteristics. Given that we are, as UNHABITAT has remarked, now in an urban millennium, this proliferation of violences in and against the urban is only to be expected. However, I detect a reciprocal dynamic in which urbanisation inflects violence and violence subsequently inflects the urban. I refer to this dynamic as the urbanisation of security – both the inflection of security technologies and discourses by urbanity and the diffusion of technologies of security in and through the urban environment. The task is thus to extend upon the urbicide analysis to examine this wider historically specific phenomenon of the urbanisation of security. I should stress that I do not think urbicide will be an appropriate concept to address this wider urbanisation of security (it is not, after all a universal concept to catch all forms of violence against the built environment). Urbicide is a specific concept designed for understanding specific instances of violence. But some of the basic theoretical impulses behind the urbicide analysis will be helpful in navigating the wider question of the urbanisation of security. In particular the non-anthropocentric materialism identified in my analysis of urbicide will be central to an account of the urbanisation of security.

2. Critical infrastructure and anthropocentrism: I have started to move this analysis forward by examining the targeting of so-called ‘critical infrastructure’ by two forms of organised violence: the shock and awe warfare practiced by advanced industrial states and so-called al-Qaeda terrorism. My argument here is that we will need to understand the technological materiality of critical infrastructure as constitutive of a certain kind of subjectivity. I have referred to this as a ‘complex ecology of subjectivity’ in which the subject is a cyborg hybrid of human and machine. Attacking technological systems cannot be seen as a means to an end of attacking the human (as anthropocentrism would) but rather must be seen as a distinct form of political violence in its own right that assaults the complex ecology of metropolitan subjectivity in a distinctive manner.

3. The urbanisation of global politics: Much has been made of the erosion of the state by globalisation, but the global urbanisation referred to by UNHABITAT seems to me to pose a very important conceptual challenge: namely how might urbanisation transform the conceptual frameworks currently employed to understand global politics.

[i]Drakulic, S. (1993) ‘Falling Down: A Mostar Bridge Elegy’, The New Republic, 13 December, pp.14-15

[ii] Berman, M. (1996) ‘Falling Towers: City Life After Urbicide’, in Crow, D. (ed) Geography and Identity: Living and Exploring Geopolitics of Identity, Washington DC: Maisonneuve Press, pp.172-192


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