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« Tracing Intent | Main | Novelty and the Materiality of the Soul »

The Urbicide Gene/Meme

Bryan, an excellent list with an evident and serious underlying pattern. I am aware that my posts are getting longer, so forgive me if I'm a little schematic in response:

  1. I published a piece[1] in a journal called Theory and Event [unfortunately subscription only] that ran through a few of the different ways that the concept of urbicide has been used. Suffice it to say that I am not the only one using this term and we do not all use it in the same way. So you and Martin are right to ask for more clarity.
  2. I have argued all the way that the point of a study of urbicide is to proliferate, not reduce, the number of conceptual terms that exist for discussing violence against the built environment. I find it entirely bizarre that in an era of global urbanisation, when only the environment is possibly more pressing as an issue of concern, your list cannot be met with some well worn replies detailing a number of forms of violence that have received careful analytic attention. In other words, isn’t it odd that we’re asking these questions and yet there are no accepted answers for them yet?
  3. There are some interesting attempts to generate such answers (e.g., Stephen Graham and Eyal Weizman’s work). I hope my Urbicide contributes to the general conversation these authors have started.
  4. However, I would not want urbicide to become a catch-all category. It is a specific form of violence and should be seen as such.

So what else can I say in response to your list of violences against the urban?

Firstly, I would not want my argument to be appropriated to some form of conservatism that reads all buildings as precious. I realise that I may inadvertently give the impression that all destruction of buildings is to be contested. I would not, however, advocate this position.

You are right that modern urbanism has a ceaseless dynamic of destruction and construction. Moreover, you are also right to note that it has an invisible dynamic of permissions and regulations that can be seen as ways in which buildings-yet-to-be are destroyed by prevention (although I have to say this takes us uncomfortably close to right-to-life arguments about the use of stem cells or contraception comprising forms of murder). Are we to bring these forms of violence under urbicide?

Here we also come back to Martin’s point about intention, because one way to answer this question would be to ask about the intention of those doing the destroying and the zoning. The problem here is how would we reliably gauge intent without sliding towards conspiracy theory (i.e., believing that our subjects have certain intent without reliable evidence that they do)?

I would say that the following is the diagnostic question for urbicide: is the destruction (or prevention) of a building part of a wider pattern in which agonistic plurality is reconfigured as antagonistic enclaves? This is the full logic of the book’s argument. Where we see the elimination of building(s) through any means conforming to a pattern in which space is reconfigured into enclaves with dead zones between (hence naturalising notions of homogeneity where there was previously plurality) then we can say that urbicide is occurring.

I think this rules out some of your examples. It also rules some in: in particular the silent urbicide of Palestinian homes by Israeli planning authorities. Modern planning may also be seen as urbicidal in cases such as that referred to by Berman (see my opening remarks for a reference) where a heterogeneous element of a social constellation is removed/rezoned/enclavised by destruction of (or prevention of) housing.

We can also take a stance on whether 'positive' urbicide – i.e., urbicide by building – can occur. It is possible, we can argue, to build in ways that are constitutive of antagonistic enclaves. But much building is not like this – knocking down houses and replacing them with a shopping mall does not disturb the essentially agonistic character of the urban terrain (despite the attempts the mall’s owners to control access). This is also why I do not think that surface measures such as CCTV are forms of urbicide – they certainly demonstrate the essential plurality of urban existence (insofar as they are a response to such heterogeneity), but they can only try to marshal difference, not actually destroy the objects whose publicness constitutes the urban as always already plural.

This is not to say that the forms of violence you mention shouldn't be taken seriously. What I would argue is that scholars of conflict, security and violence, need to engage with architects, planners, urbanists and geographers to start to build more complex typologies for these various violences. I'd be interested in your thoughts as to how we might start to classify you various cases.

[1] Coward, M. “Urbicide Reconsidered”, Theory and Event, Vol:10 No.2 (2007)


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