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Cities – The Medieval & Modern Battleground August 12, 2007

Posted by tkcollier in Economy & Business, Geopolitics, philosophy & politics.

Subtopia: The City in the Crosshairs: A Conversation with Stephen Graham (Pt. 1)

In a recent speech before the National Press Club on C-Span, Newt Gingrich closed with a grim admonition that those protesting the infringement of civil liberties from the Patriot Act will be overwhelmed, if that surveillance doesn’t keep us from losing a city. Americans will surrender their “rights” for “Security”. This interview of a leftist British professor has many insights into the new Postmodern Late-Capitalist HyperUrban Medievalism. I am not so sure we are in the “post-capitalist” stage quite yet (though I’m sure that he thinks so). The Assymetrical “Long War” of Globilization will be fought in the cities.

The global mixing in today’s world renders any simple dualism between North and South, or Developed and Developing, very unhelpful. Instead, it’s more useful to think of transnational architectures of control, wealth and power, as passing through and inhabiting all of these zones but in a wide variety of ways. Extreme poverty exists in many ‘developed cities’ while enclaves of supermodern and high-tech wealth pepper the cities on South East, Southern and Eastern Asia.

The histories of the city and of political violence are, of course, inseparably linked. As Lewis Mumford teaches us, security is, of course, one of the very reasons for the very origins of urbanization. The evolution of urban morphology, as you say, is closely connected to the evolution of the geographies and technologies of war and political violence: fortification and the bounding of urban space through defensive and aggressive architecture are especially central to this long and complex story. So, too, is the fortification of cities to the symbolic demonstration of wealth, power and aggression, and as the commercial demarcation of territorialities. The elaborate histories of siege craft, atrocity, the symbolic sacking and erasure of urban space, and cat and mouse interplay of tactics and strategies of attack and tactics and strategies of defence, are all central here. Much of the Old Testament, in fact, is made up of fables of attempted and successful urban annihilation. As Marshall Berman has argued, “Myths of urban ruin grow at our culture’s root.” Important, here, are the symbolic roles of urban sites as icons of victory, domination and political or religious regime change.

All of this is fairly obvious. What fascinates me is that the histories of modern and late capitalist urban development tend to retreat from and obfuscate the continued centrality of cities as strategic sites within war and political violence. The obvious, physical, architectures of fortification have clearly left the city as it becomes ‘over-exposed’ – in Virilio’s terms – to the new optics and technics of transnational and Total War. Remaining fortifications, at that point, are reinscribed as tourist sites: reminders of a simple relationship between architecture and violence. And – at least until recently – nation states have clearly worked to construct and maintain their monopolies on political violence in a way that rendered cities as mere targets. This reached its apogee within the Cold War imaginaries of full scale nuclear Armageddon.

Partly because of these changes, the more stealthy and subtle relationships between modern urbanism and war, when discussed at all, now lurk more in the interstices of urban debate. Who recalls the obsession of CIAM and Le Corbusier’s ‘Ville Radieuse’ with building ‘towers in the park’ not just as generators of a new machinic urbanism, or of the interplay of light and air, but as buildings that were both difficult to hit through aerial bombing and which would raise their inhabitants up above expected aerial gas attacks? Who remembers the role of nuclear paranoia in adding further momentum to the racialised politics of ‘White Flight’ in the USA during the 1950s? And who, in their architecture or planning training, are treated to courses on the roles of these disciplines as engines of destruction, annihilation, and politicised violence against those people and places deemed to be anti-modern, backward, unclean, or dangerous to the state, or the fetishised image of the emergent ‘global’ city?

These obfuscations mean that architecture and critical urbanism remain ill-equipped to deal with the way in which war and political violence are re-entering the city in the post Cold War world.

The ‘postmodern medievalism’ is a fascinating argument, I think. There is certainly a sense amongst military theorists of scrambling to look back at the proxy urban wars of colonialism – and elsewhere – to learn lessons that might help inform tactics in places like Baghdad.

However, I don’t think we really are going ‘back to the future’ in some simplistic way. Rather, political violence and war are being re-inscribed into the micro-geographies and architectures of cities in ways that, whilst superficially similar to historic defensive urbanism, inevitably reflect contemporary conditions. Important here, at the very least, are some important distinctions:

• The constant real-time transmission of video, images and text via TV and the ‘Net;
• The increasingly seamless merging between security, corrections, surveillance, military and entertainment industries who work continually to supply, generate, fetishise, and profit from urban targeting, war and securitisation;
• A proliferating range of private, public and private-public bodies legitimised to act violently on behalf of capital, the state, or ‘the international system’;
• The mass and repeated simulacral participation of citizens within spaces of digitised war, especially Orientalised video games produced by the military;
• The particular vulnerabilities of contemporary capitalist cities to the disruption or appropriation of the technical systems on which urban life relies. (These are caused by the proliferation, extension and acceleration of all manner of mobilities, the tight space-time coupling of the technical infrastructural flows that sustain ‘globalization’, and, more prosaically, the fact that modern urbanites have few if any alternatives when the fuel stops, the electricity is down, the water ceases, or the food and communication stops; or the waste is not removed);
• The ways in which borders and bordering technologies are emerging as global assemblages continually linking sensors, databases, defensive and security architectures and the scanning of bodies;
• The centrality of urbicidal violence or neglect to the new geographies of ‘primitive accumulation’ through which private military corporations and ‘reconstruction coalitions’ produce, and benefit from, what ‘disaster capitalism’ (Naomi Klein’s term) or “accumulation by dispossession” (David Harvey’s phrase) – whether in Baghdad or New Orleans; and
• The growing importance of roaming circuits of temporary securitised zones, set up and policed by cosmopolitan roaming armies of specialists, to encompass G8 summits, Olympics, World Cups, etc.

Added to this, we have new relationships emerging in the long-standing interplay of social and urban control experiments practiced on the populations of colonised cities and lands, and appropriated back by States and elites to develop architectures of control in the cities at the “heart of empire.” Thus, biometric borders emerge around Fallujah before being inscribed into the world’s airline systems. The complex legal and architectural geographies of extra-territoriality, permanent exception, and privatised political violence are set out through the global system of establishing and securitizing off-shore trading and manufacturing enclaves before being implanted into the Palestine territories of the “war on terror’s” “archipelago of enclaves.” Israeli practice of ‘shoot on sight’ is directly imitated, following advice from the IDF, by UK counter-terrorist operations on the London tube after 7/7. And the Pentagon’s experiments in the tracking of entire urban traffic systems provide an input into the shift to ‘smart’ or ‘algorithmic’ CCTV in western cities.

The deepening cross-overs between war industries and policing, event management, border control, urban security and entertainment work to permeate and normalize cultures of war and militarism in a way where traditional separations between the ‘inside’ of nations and the ‘outside’ increasingly fall away.


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