Monthly Archives: December 2016

Review: Cities and Symbols

Nas, Peter J. M. (Ed.). (2011). Cities Full of Symbols: A Theory of Urban Space and Culture. Leiden, Netherlands: Leiden University Press. 303 pp. $52.50, ISBN 9789089641250.

Cities Full of Symbols is an edited collection that approaches the urban environment from the perspective of urban symbolic ecology. Set within the general field of urban studies, this perspec- tive is defined as “a major tendency” and new area of urban cultural anthropology, pursuing the study of “the cultural dimension of the city” by way of “establishing the distribution and the meanings of symbols and rituals in relation to cultivated surrounds.” The introduction traces the theoretical framework in correlation with a systematization of the symbolic aspects of the city into four categories of symbol bearers: material, discursive, iconic, and behavioral. The main body consists of 12 chapters, each following up selected aspects within a specific case study. The conclusion steers discussion toward a “codification of urban symbolism research,” putting forth the symbolic as a possible way toward “social cohesion.”

With its anthropological outlook, this book presents a stimulating contribution to the ongoing discourse on the urban—one of the most exciting aspects in the study of culture, where notions such as space and place, image, and identity, are subject to theorization by thinkers from diverse fields and lineages (social theory, urban studies, social and symbolic geography, philosophy, architecture). This current perspective posits “the city as a symbolic site” and confirms its symbolic structure as important part of its identity by way of examining its components within urban contexts that are highly heterogeneous in problematic and sociocultural formulation. Hence the reader will find studies on the efforts for national representation in postcolonial developing cities in Southeast Asia, such as Colombo or Jakarta, on the symbolism of urban components in estab- lished world cities such as New York, Buenos Aires, The Hague, as well as on the image con- struction and/or marketing of various towns also involving digital media techniques.

As stated in its self-definition, the theoretical scope of urban symbolic ecology is derived from several approaches. It is rooted in human ecology, furthering the description and analysis of the arrangement of social phenomena over urban space toward the aim of identifying types of symbolic patterns. It also employs Kevin Lynch’s (1960) method of combining “mental mapping” with interviews so as to understand how urban dwellers perceive and organize the urban landscape, and extends on the concepts of “identity” and “structure” by emphasizing the meaning aspects of urban elements. Furthermore, as part of a series of studies on urban symbolism, it focuses on semiotics and the processes of signification in the urban setting, including those of media as a means to constitute a virtual “hyper reality” layer of meaning.

The proposed categorization of symbol carriers bears potential in addressing the possible symbolic aspects of a city comprehensively. In this, the category “material carriers”—the “traditional terrain of urban symbolic ecology”—comprises monuments and other urban objects, as well as architecture, and is intended to “describe the meaning of the urban configuration in all its facets” by focusing on formal properties such as style and geometry. The “discursive” category entails “reflections on urban images and narratives,” and, along with literary sources, gives emphasis to websites as symbolic carriers. It allows drawing attention to computerized media as a self-standing source of signification, pointing to the suitability of this technology of image making for manipulation, and hence—for “the terrain of city branding and marketing.” “Behavioral” symbol carriers relate to urban activities and rituals such as mass celebrations or festivals involved in the city image formation. The category “iconic” is intended toward individuals or personalities with capacity to “represent a city,” highlighting elements that help posit a city as a “goal for pilgrimage,” “sacred or profane.”

The book as a whole genuinely fulfills its function of university publication, both in that it depicts a framework that is actually open and evolving and in that it allots substantial place to emerging researchers alongside renowned authors. Hence studies of the former group adhere more closely to the principal methodology, producing insightful and detailed field research and obtaining valuable data as to the “emic” accounts of meanings assigned to urban surrounds. Established social and cultural anthropologists on the other hand, engage on extending the approach, such as for instance, E. Durr’s inquiry into the workings of urban symbols within the complex mechanisms of collective memory and in correlation with conceptions from the broader field of thought on perception, mind, and memory. On the whole, the discussion of symbolic structures appears to be based on a “top-down” versus “bottom-up” dichotomy, in a way echoing De Certeau’s distinction between rational urbanist planning and the “tactics” that people who live these designs use to make sense. However, in a close up, the detailed research of various cases also yields evidence that would actually resist such clear-cut polarity, as well as the straight- forward classification presupposed by the concepts of “production” and “consumption” of urban symbolism. Hence, for instance, the status of some behavioral symbol carriers might come out to be rather ambiguous. In this, one might consider how festivals and religious rituals, though participatory in nature, are also organized/institutionalized urban events, while practices such as street painting that would begin as grassroots initiative come to be regularized through official poli- cies—ambiguities that would point toward more intricate theoretical/interpretative schemes.

Concerned with image formation and formulation of meanings, and presenting massive concrete research material, this book, in its own terms, brings into focus the symbolic as an aspect of the problematic links between the notions of identity and location. By observing buildings, objects, and practices, which present potent links with broader analytical frameworks, this book demonstrates how such elements act also as symbolic carriers. It provides grounds to involve the symbolic into the constitution of the theoretical tools that help us understand the processes whereby urban components are constructed, utilized, imagined and remembered. This symbolic perspective sheds light on the complex techniques and dynamics through which ideas, narratives, and spaces are produced, regulated, and acquire symbolic value, pointing to possibilities of generating, collectively, spaces of cultural belonging, association and solidarity.

Maya N. Öztürk, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey

Washington-Moscow: A New Geopolitical Bilateralism?

Trump has emphasized the bilateral in his thinking and approach.  This is in contrast to the multilateral world of the globalization era that is now at an end.  This includes an end to multilateral trade in favour of a network of focused bilateral economic interactions.  As a thought experiment, imagine that a Trump United States seeks to align itself strategically with other powers, ie. with Russia, even against the interests of its citizens (henceforth expendable in the interests of a monarchic state) or past allies (inconvenient obligations).  In this vision, the US and Russia would be economically similar, as highly divided countries, rigidly ruled.

A US-Russia partition of global interests would be echoed regionally, suggesting balanced tensions between proxies in each arena that dominate international interactions, for example Israel-Syria in the Middle East.  Such states would seek to profit as not only proxies but champions for their respective sponsors in each competition.

However, what of China faced with this bilateral duopoly?  There are opportunities to innovate.  Perhaps China is the banker of this dialectic?  Closer China-India ties be a better strategy for both as it  may lay the basis for a future, post-carbon economic bloc.  India is otherwise too weak to influence the course of events.

As for Europe, it is now retired from the geopolitical stage as it is too internally divided.  2017 thus also marks the end of the long-duree of European colonialism.   The peripheral states produced by European empires as suppliers of raw materials, whether Australia, South Africa, Congo, Algeria, Brazil or Canada, become more unstable because tied to one of the duopolistic major players and held captive to what they are willing to pay.

Bilateralism would suggest rather different international institutions.  It certainly is not neoliberalism with its corresponding international institutions.  Promoting a reduction to market logics  seem to have destroyed civility, allowing tyranny to take root.

If such a thought experiment were to be realized, it would entail a massive forgetting of the 20th century and the lessons of the recent past.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

 

 

Idea of Place

May 5-7: University of Alberta, Edmonton Canada

Research on the idea of place has generated fascinating research from a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives, from regional, national and transnational and from intersectional, postcolonial and Indigenous perspectives.

Place is at the fore of current intellectual agendas that are witnessing place slip through the fingers of climate change, to the changing modalities of place under shifting migration patterns, to new discourses of place with promises of new walls, new freedoms, new identities, and new flows. Place speaks to the social and cultural dynamics of the virtual and the material, the transcendent and the concrete.

This conferences welcomes contemporary challenges to the idea of place, along with new ideas, and with a focus on the relationship between individuals and communities to place and history. The purpose of the conference will be to further develop place as a reponsive concept: a tool for understanding strategic sociocultural frames such as time-horizons, cycles, and imagined geography- determined political divisions. The conference will illuminate the dynamics of how places as landscapes, ecologies and cultural topologies facilitate or buffer change. There are growing public demands for, on the one hand, innovation in place-making and, on the other hand, stewardship of the environment. These concerns around places and environments are emerging as a nexus within shared preoccupations across a multicultural society, which includes a complex range of Aboriginal, settler and diasporic communities and histories.

We are especially interested in experimental place as it intersects with any one or more of the following areas: culture and identity, community and politics, event, crisis and disaster, gender and sexualities , resistance, counter-power and power, economics and juridical frameworks, food, the urban and cities, mediation, subjectivation and embodiment, cognition and sensation, code, the production of art, dance, painting, music, film, war, difference, or measurement. Any and all aspects on place will be considered.

A 250-word abstract for a 15-20 minutes presentation should be sent to theideaofplace@gmail.com by the 20th of January. Accepted speakers will be notified shortly thereafter. Please send your proposal as an attachment including a title, an abstract (of no more than 300 words) and a brief biography. If relevant, proposals can include links to give an indication of any artistic, collective or other practice.

For further information, please contact Mickey Vallee: mjvallee@gmail.com

Mickey Vallee
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
Athabasca University, Canada
www.mickeyvallee.com

High-Speed Train to Jinan

—– Slippery spaces of speed

Flying at 300kmh across the flat plain of Shandong, the high-speed train to Jinan offers an elevated view of harvests, factories and forests. The train crosses countryside and towns undergoing their second, third or fourth total reconstruction in under a hundred years. High-speed G-trains are lifted out of the landscape on elevated tracks which makes the experience different from European fast trains.

China’s walled garden is now laced with the tendrils of the national high speed railway that, as Chinese say, ‘links the south and the north’ integrating either bank of the Yangt’ze, and even the symbolic realms of lion and elephant. ‘What once took a day is now reduced to a commute of an hour and a half.’

The aggressive, 300kmh transportation and technological transformation of the Peoples’ Republic is not only a question of getting around faster. It introduces not only a new tempo but a new rhythm with its own metre. Speed reduces the old space and time distances to afterthoughts. Writers such as Innis and McLuhan and Grant have pointed to the shock of such changes from the old. But you don’t need to have previous experience of travel in China to appreciate the sense of speed. This arises through the contrast between the smooth stillness of the carriage and the a landscape scrolling past in which the mobilities below are pedestrian and agricultural equipment in rural areas, or traffic-congested streets in urban areas. Against the kinesthetic sense of the body sitting still, and the muted sound of the wheels, because of the elevated track, the eye registers the parallax of passing powerlines, roads and windrows. This combination is a prima facie experience of the new.

This contrast, sets the Fast Train to Jinan apart from the local space of everyday life on a line where the velocity is much faster. The contrast in tempos gives rise to the tentacular, tendril-like impression of these lines spanning the ground of everyday spaces and rhythms. On this train, are we ‘on’ a line, or ‘in’ this line – slipping down a linear, one dimensional, slippery space of speed?

In the same way that drawing a line creates a figure graphically, there is a figure-ground relation between the linear and territorial time-spaces.  As if from a quick sketch, we can gain an impression of this evolving character.

Innis’ political economy of Empire and Communications traces the evolution of governance through technologies such as train and telephone. The confrontation of all past and new modes of communication and transportation in China is a remarkable repertoire of not only velocity but of technologies that have temporal and spatial effects. For Innis, echoed by later authors — Virilio, Schivelbusch — speed has a binding effect on spaces, bringing far-flung regions and places ‘closer together.’ Of course, this is a virtual closing of geographical distance. The technologies extend the ‘reach’ of power and create a new topology of relationships. In the first instance this seems to be a closing of gaps between places, but it also affects the relationship between parts and whole, between place and space. The effect is to create a new figure against the ground of China understood as territory, economy and political space. This figure is not only the train, but the traveller, a mobilized citizen in counterpoint to an older, territorially-anchored citizen.

Perhaps the contrast of the space of high speed trains and travellers is most strongly marked by contrast with those who, for many reasons, refuse to acquiesce to this new infrastructure, insisting on remaining in their houses, refusing to move, contesting the terms of relocation – or perhaps more appropriately, dispossession. This time-space of dwelling, the rhythms of everyday life, is pierced by new roads, train lines, and ranks of highrise accommodations intended to ‘urbanize’ ambivalent workers and reluctant peasants. The ‘refusees’ are often forcibly removed by violently destroying their houses. They are labelled ‘dangerous’ and must plead their status as ‘good citizens’ who ‘merely want to be left a space to live’. The doubt cast on the respectability of one set of people contrasts with citizens embracing the new superimposition of rhythms and time-spaces that reorders routines giving daily life both greater reach yet rendering the new citizen rootlessness and alienated from the more sedentary pace and terms of the territorial ground.

The high-speed train to Jinan —–

Traces the linear space-time, rhythm and tempo of a new political subject. Is this still the People, or a Mobile Citizen? In the euphoria of the new, it is all too easy to miss the counterpoint.

—– Rob Shields (University of Alberta)