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« Delimiting Urbicide | Main | Opening Remarks »

Assembling the Social and Urban Heterogeneity

I would first like to congratulate Martin on his stimulating book and thank CTlab for the organisation of what promises to be another fascinating online symposium. Martin, I read Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction with great interest. If I read you properly, your main thesis can be encapsulated in the following sentence: “urbicide is the deliberate destruction of buildings qua the conditions of possibility of a specific ‘urban’ existential quality: heterogeneity” (p.53). I would like to interrogate two of the fundamental building blocks of your argument: the focus on the destruction of buildings and the relationship between the urban and heterogeneity.

I was glad to see you mention Bruno Latour briefly in your opening post as his work came to my mind as I was reading through your book. Indeed, Latour has insisted that society only endures through its continuous reassembly, that is the painstaking renewal of the relations between the individuals that make it up. In spite of a durability that seems to exceed that of their constituent members, social collectivities are never a given and the bonds that tie them together have to be maintained and repaired every day. Latour has notably pointed to the lengthy daily sessions of collective grooming necessary within baboon troops in order to maintain the cohesion of these social groups. What distinguishes human societies from those of primates, and thereby accounts for their greater extension and complexity, is their ability to rely on material structures and technologies that grant greater permanence and stability to social bonds by orienting our relations in multiple ways. Thus we do not have to rebuild society from scratch every day since so much of it is embodied in the buildings we inhabit, the tools we use and the objects that surround us.

I find Latour’s arguments very persuasive and illuminating in light of your own work. If the social is so dependent on the constructed environment it which it is set, it does suggest certain forms of collective existence are being targeted through their destruction, a conclusion you have come to via your reading of Heidegger (it seems the starting points of Latour and Heidegger are quite different but perhaps there are some similarities in their approaches that lead to the same place?). This does however raise the question for me of why you chose to focus on ‘buildings’ over the broader gamut of man-made structures, tools, objects and their various concatenations. Is the privileging of architecture, important as it is, not needlessly restrictive? Why limit oneself to the destruction of buildings and not that of the wider technological basis of human relations? Perhaps you are already moving to addressing this with your latest work on the targeting of critical infrastructure.

One of the most interesting elements of your argument is the connection you make between heterogeneity and the urban (indeed, in your understanding the latter becomes primarily that which constitutes the former over and above more conventional geographic notions of urbanism) but it is also the claim I have most reservations about (although perhaps this is through an incomplete reading or understanding on my behalf).

Following on from the above Latourian perspective, I have no difficulty in seeing the built environment as being a constitutive element of a pluralist heterogeneous collectivity. However it seems plausible to me that buildings equally can be used to homogenise, exclude and deny plurality. What should we make of the Berlin Wall or the deployment of architecture to bolster Israeli occupation in Palestinian territories (see Eyal Weizman)? Or of the totalising dreams of modernist architecture and the disastrous housing projects it produced?

I see you have been very careful to define urbanity in such way as to avoid excluding what is commonly understood as rural life so that the urban should be primarily grasped as an existential quality permitted by buildings (and not something we find only in cities). However where does that leave nomadic societies? Are we to conclude that they are denied the potential for heterogeneity afforded by the buildings of sedentary societies? Is there not here an assumption that territoriality is the basis of plurality? Deleuze and Guattari famously see territorialisation as totalising and nomadism as the vector of lines of flight permitting the expression of difference and creation of new values.

Finally, the notion of urbicide as destruction of heterogeneity seems very applicable to civil wars and ‘ethnic’ conflicts in which violence results in the breakdown of a sphere of civility and plurality in the name of virulent forms of nationalism. But I’m not so clear how this applies to classic inter-state wars. Were the strategic bombings of Germany or Japan attacks on heterogeneity when both states were governed by authoritarian regimes with designs of empire and racial supremacy?

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