Critical Urban Theory or Urban Critical Theory or Just Critical Theory? (1 of 4)

BOOK SYNOPSIS Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City, eds. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse, & Margit Mayer, (2012), New York: Routledge.

It seems almost late, compared to the original versions of these works, a conference held at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, Berlin in November 2008, but it would be foolish to pass this collected volume up because it is as timely as ever.  From authors rooted in numerous fields of scholarship, sociology, politics, geography, urban planning, and urban design,  this book holds a sprightly discussion of the contemporary issues in critical urban studies under the auspices of global capitalism and its crises of economic and social instability. The authors unveil the usefulness of critical theory to urban problems, to highlight the rampant inequities intrinsic to the capitalism, but also the contradictions inherent in capitalism which make it only a stage of history, and therefore, only a tool for the suppression of alternative, more just, radically democratic and  sustainable urbanisms.  “Capitalist-cities are not only sites for strategies of capital accumulation; they are also arenas in which the conflicts and contradictions associated with historically and geographically specific accumulation strategies are expressed and fought out.”

The book was written as “the right to the city” or occupy movement was beginning to flourish amongst the economic recession and social instability in 2008.  Many of the writers were inspired by the new movements or crises in that they, historically  have been periods of social change (especially 1968, Paris, or the student protests and Civil Rights Movement in the US).  But they come with mixed emotions : capitalism is both prone to crises and its contradictions, but the processes of capitalism are relentlessly creative and destructive. The city is central to these processes and the social turmoil it produces; it is a place where both the affluent elites and the excluded  working class, proletariat fight for claims to the city, or their “right to the city.”  Neil Brenner writes to emphasize the urban component of critical theory and calls for an “urbanistic” reorientation of critical theory (21).

Brenner lays the ground work for a cooperative venture between critical social theory, namely from the Frankfurt School of thought, and critical urban theory, critical of the positivist and rationalistic theories dominant in urbanism, such as the Chicago School of sociology.  Critical urban theory, Brenner explains,

“emphasizes the politically and ideologically mediated, socially contested and therefore malleable character of urban space—that is, its continual (re)construction as a site, medium and outcome of historically specific relations of social power. Critical urban theory is thus grounded on an antagonistic relationship not only to inherited urban knowledges, but more generally, to existing urban formations. It insists that another, more democratic, socially just and sustainable form of urbanization is possible, even if such possibilities are currently being suppressed through dominant institutional arrangements, practices and ideologies. In short, critical urban theory involves the critique of ideology (including social–scientific ideologies) and the critique of power, inequality, injustice and exploitation, at once within and among cities.” (11)

Brenner also clearly argues that Marx and Herbert Marcuse, amongst others, and the agenda of critical theory, are in search of emancipatory alternatives to the status quo hegemon, ideas that are lurking in the margins and contradictions of the existing social relations. He establishes four key elements of critical theory that are applicable across the various theorists: “critical theory is theory; it is reflexive; it involves a critique of instrumental reason; and it is focused on the disjuncture between the actual and the possible.” Importantly, he explains critical theory uses abstractions to illustrate, explain, argue, and extend, and is therefore more than a lens, it is a theory.  And the condition of theory can only be changed if critical theory as it is practiced by agents of social change or revolution in everyday practice, it would no longer be theory: “it is precisely because revolutionary, transformative, emancipatory social practice remains so tightly circumscribed and constrained under contemporary capitalism that critical theory remains critical theory—and not simply everyday social practice.”

To the heart of the matter, to critical urban theory, Brenner notes that “the urban can no longer be viewed as a distinct, relatively bounded site; it has instead become a generalized, planetary condition in and through which the accumulation of capital, the regulation of political–economic life, the reproduction of everyday social relations and the contestation of the earth and humanity’s possible futures are simultaneously organized and fought out.” Therefore, the distinction between urban critical theory and critical theory in general falls apart, and new conceptual and intellectual reworkings of critical theory must necessarily be urban. He builds upon the reflexivity that is necessarily apart of critical theory, that it is situated in social and historical context, and is constantly evolving and reforming to better understand the world it interprets.  The contradiction between the actual and the possible refers to the linkage between theory and practice, the difference between theory and reality, and the necessity of theory to adapt to the new circumstances of social and historical context.

Peter Marcuse brings into question the “right to the city” posing questions: whose right, what right, what city? The right to the city is a cry from the “most marginalized and most underpaid and insecure members of the working class.” It is a demand by the directly oppressed (oppressed along line of race, ethnicity, gender, life style, etc), and aspiration comes from the “alienated” (of any economic class, “in resistance to the dominant system as preventing adequate satisfaction of their human needs” (32)). To be sure the rights being called for are different, in contestation, and there is definitely a conflict between the rights of those in power with those who are oppressed.  Marcuse argues that it will be the combination of the deprived and the discontent who lead the movement, with an effort to disambiguate the discontented who are “on top” from those below. ” A direct confrontation with this repression/sublimation may have to be a very concrete part of any practical political action to achieve real change…[P]eople affected by these phenomena are also among the deprived and the discontent, but their direction of their reaction is quite opposite…The battle thus becomes ever more a battle of ideology, understanding grounded in material oppression but not limited to it, combining the demands of the oppressed with the aspirations of the alienated” (33).

The rights are more than just the necessities of life, essential needs, but more broadly, more fundamentally political rights “on a higher moral plane” than legal systems of justice, with the demands for a better system in which the benefits of urban life can be realized in their entirety.  It is at its essence the right to social justice, not a package of individual rights, but more a unified set of rights (not necessarily the same across all peoples). So what city?  Marcuse refers to a future city, one that exists in planetary urbanization, a world with the entire surface covered with the urban fabric and its changes in texture.  Marcuse ties in critical urban theory with urban planning, and lends his framework for critical planning: expose, propose, and politicize.  In this sort of planning one exposes the underlying roots of the problem, propose a solution with those affected, and politicize to clarify the “political action implications of what was exposed and proposed and the reasoning behind them, and supporting organizing around the proposals by informing action” (37). Its in this proposition that the goals of the right to the city movement can be expressed as the creation of a decent supportive living environment achieved through the elimination of the profit motive in the political sector, and eliminating the role of wealth and the power linked to it from public decisions.

Christian Schmid lauds Henri Lefebvre’s right to the city formulation characterizing the historical contingency of his writings as a way to understand the present situation.  For Lefebvre, the crisis of the city was marked by the “homogenization of lifestyles and an engineering and colonization of everyday life” marked by the “monotony of the labor process, the order of functionalized and bureaucratized cities, and the normative constraints of the modernized urban everyday life” (43).  Struggles for the city have been thus about the battle over the right to the material and immaterial resources of the city, against exclusion and marginalization, addressing the spatial dialectics of center and the periphery, and of appropriation and domination with an explicit spatial dimension.  Importantly, for social movements or social change, Lefebvre focused not on the city as a form, but urbanization as a process.

Lefebvre posited that the world was undergoing a complete urbanization, a transition to an urban society. The dialectic of city/rural, therefore no longer was important, and rather an umbrella of urbanization and industrialization housed all of society. The city, then, is dissolved: its not a definable unit, and its definition become problematic. For Lefebvre, “The concept of the city no longer corresponds to a social object… However, the city has a historical existence that is impossible to ignore. Small and midsize cities will be around for some time. An image or representation of the city can perpetuate itself, survive its conditions, inspire ideology and urbanist projects. In other words, the “real” sociological “object” is an image and an ideology! ” (46).

Schmid details Lefebvre’s inquiry into planetary urbanization theory through the concepts of mediation, centrality, and difference. The urban level serves as a mediating-intermediary between the private level (proximate order, everyday, dwelling) and the global level (distant order, world market, the state, knowledge, institutions, and ideologies), connecting them.  The urban level is in danger of attrition from above and below, contributing to fragmentation and homogenization, but at the same time the city is a social resource in planetary urbanization, a means of organizing the diverse elements of society into a productive entity. Centrality refers to the dominance of the city as a center, a confluence of heterogeneous elements, where there is encounter, communication, and information free from the constraints and normality.  Centrality is not a concrete form, but rather a mental act and social act: “it is the synchronicity of events, of perceptions, and of the elements of a whole. Socially, it amounts to the convergence and combination of goods and activities. Centrality can thus also be understood as a totality of differences” (48). Difference,  the third marker of the urban, is the confrontation of particularities and subsequent transformation into presentation and representation in relation to others, in interactions, and this requires the acknowledgement of difference.  Therefore, the urban is the spatial construct which turns particularities into differences to allow for productive relationships. Difference for Lefebvre is an active element, and it is multidimensional arising from the disjunctures of everyday life and political struggles.  The decisive question, though alluded to earlier, is if productive differences arise between the heterogeneous elements. This urban is a possibility, a “concrete utopia”, not an existing reality, but something that must be constantly produced and reproduced.

The production of urban space and Lefebvre’s later work, The Production of Space, then is used to explore the relationships between the characteristics of the urban laid out (above) in The Urban Revolution. He uses the duplicate tripartite of dialectically linked processes (“formants” or “moments”): “spatial practices”, “representations of space”, and “spaces of representation”, “perceived”, “conceived”, and “lived” space.  Perceived space is the component which can be grasped with all five senses, it is the  material aspects and practices which constitute a spatial order: urban space is a place for material interactions and physical encounter.  Immediately, then, is the issue of the distribution and access to urban resources, the norms and rules which govern practices, and the dynamism which each space might have as flows of people and goods are introduced at any moment.

The conception of space, then, is integral to the perception of space.    “A conceived space is therefore a depiction that reflects and defines a space and thus also represents it… Constructions of conceptions of space are supported by social conventions that define which element are related to one another and which ones are excluded– conventions that are not immutable, but often contested, and which are negotiated in discursive (political) practice…connected to the production of knowledge and power structures. In a broader sense, the representations of space also include social rules and ethics ” (51).  Thus the way a city is conceived is dependent on how society defines urbanity, how it creates and proliferates ideas of the city, and these are contested and political actions, especially in the context of Lefebvre’s conceptualization of the city: no longer a distinct entity, and there are many ways of defining and demarcating.

The third dimension, “spaces of representation”, refers to the signification of another aspect through material symbolism. Encountered by people in their everyday lives, or what Lefebvre calls “espace vecu“, space that is lived or experienced, this space gives meaning to the intangible/ungraspable “something” that intellectual or theoretical analyses inevitably miss. It forms the meaning of the “nature” of the city, its essence, processes of socialization, and implicit value systems. These spaces have both a socially collective and individual aspect, which implies a power dynamic that is built into the fabric of the urban, which channels certain symbolism, negative or positive, banal or spectacular, and also facilitates the “concrete processes of appropriation and the recognition that urban spaces can be used in different ways than were previously envisaged” (52).

These three processes in the production of space are held in dialectical unity which inevitably leads to constant struggle and contestation over the “content of the urban”.  Schmid uses this theoretical groundwork to describe contemporary struggles over the city, the rediscovery and “mainstreaming” of the metropolitan, the commodification of the urban, and new centralization and peripheralization. He highlights the issue of antagonism between the productive and non-productive ways of consuming space, between capitalist “consumers” and collective “users”: “the contradiction between exchange value and use value when transferred to space, thus becomes the contradiction between capitalist domination and the self-determined appropriation of space” (56).   This boils down to the twofold “dialectical movement between centralization and peripheralization on the one hand, and appropriation and domination on the other” (57). Schmid offers hope that critical theory and practice attempts to uncover the ability of the right to the city movement to control the urbanization process, and as Lefebvre had postulated, turn over to the citizens the city for self-management or “autogestion generalisee”. The urban crisis is an opportunity to imagine and take hold of radically different urban worlds.


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