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