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« The Urbicide Gene/Meme | Main | Normative Urbicide [and the Politics of (In)Visible Destruction]? »

Novelty and the Materiality of the Soul

Thanks to Marc for a very interesting reflection on community. I think I would want to say two things in reply:

Firstly, the question of the novelty of this form of violence is to my mind a quite complex issue. As you note I nod towards Carthage in the book, and yesterday I indicated that the bombing of Dresden and Tokyo might come under the rubric of urbicide. That said, I think I would want to argue for some form of historical specificity in the concept of urbicide:

  1. I associate this violence with cases of ethnic nationalism that seem to be distinctively modern. At this point I would share Michael Mann’s observation that the kind of violence we associate with genocide tends to arise in the modern period because of the manner in which self-determination and plurality are logically contradictory. I would venture that urbicide shares this conceptual terrain. I suspect therefore, that I would want to see the kind of violence evident in Bosnia in 1993 as different to that which was aimed as the Sephardim in Spain. The latter might be seen as a violence that arises out of the complex overlapping jurisdictions of religious authority. This would different to the violence of Bosnia which might be understood as the genocidal activity of a majority group seeking to legitimise self-determination through homogenisation ( a dynamic historically specific to modernity). But I would be interested in Marc’s thoughts on this.
  2. More importantly, I would want to argue that urbanisation has historically specific dynamics that give rise to distinctive forms of violence. Cities have of course been the target of violence in the past (siege warfare being a good example), but I would tentatively argue that there is something distinctive about the violence against buildings in an era where the built environment is globalised. Again, I’d be interested in further thoughts on this.

Secondly, more importantly, I am uneasy invoking the ‘soul’ of the community. This is not a secular vs. theological issue but rather a methodological one. Let me explain:

  1. This invocation only works if we look at buildings defined as cultural heritage. In this sense the bridge is a misleading place to start, I admit. I also admit that extant accounts of what is occurring in the destruction of cultural heritage seem satisfactory to me. The question is what happens when shopping malls, car-parks, non-descript office blocks and so become the target. Are these really repositories of the ‘soul’ of a community?
  2. The invocation of spirit falls into the same anthropocentric trap that I am trying to critique. Referring to destruction of the psyche or soul of a community renders the actual buildings destroyed ontologically irrelevant. It reduces the destruction of these buildings to mere instrumental acts directed not at those buildings and what they are but at the community of humans. As such it falls into anthropocentrism’s trap of rendering all material objects mere things that are of interest only insofar as they are tools for humans. I would want to say that this is a problematic position to end up in. Materiality must be seen as constitutive, not simply an instrumental backdrop. To put it more simply, there is no soul of the community, only its buildings. Take away the buildings and you take away the soul. Once we recognise this we must start to see the importance of understanding the constitutive nature of the buildings. And we must see them – not some ideational human collectivity – as the real target.

I'd be intereasted in Marc's further thoughts on this last point as I suspect that this is where the real methodologcal debate lies: between those interested in a humanist social science and those in a more material social science. I think a longer discussion between these positions would draw out some interesting thoughts.

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