Category Archives: Europe

Review: Creative Urbanity

Guano, Emanuela. (2017). Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812248784. 242 pages + notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgements.

To a casual visitor, any city usually appears to be a monolithic collection of buildings, people and open spaces, all somehow connected by a hidden code of conduct that eludes outsiders. Emanuela Guano’s nuanced Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization allows the reader to steal a few furtive glances at Genoa’s subtle inner workings hidden beneath the superficial exterior of an Italian port city. This is what polyvocality looks like at its finest, supported by distinct voices of its actors in six main chapters, bookended by a thorough introduction and poignant conclusions, followed by notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements; maps and photography by the author and other contributors constitute another valuable dimension of this project.

From the effective opening vignette of Beatrice, a tour guide in Genoa’s centro storico, who informs her walking audience about mysteries of the city long-gone while “conjuring the hidden out of the familiar” (2), Guano commands her readers’ attention with ethnographic case studies viewed through a fresh gaze as she offers “a few glimpses into the city’s nature as a fluid assemblage” (18). While the supporting ethnographic field research is impressive, the motivations behind Guano’s project constitute a solid case study in and of itself. A diasporic Genoese flaneuse, Guano walked the streets of the city in a Baudelairean style, watching, taking notes, drawing conclusions and exploring the urban everyday shaped by the corporate capital. While her methodology and concept are well explained, Guano saw her project as a labor of love grown on the genesis of her own nostalgia for the city where she would have been precluded from pursuing an academic career.

The well-edited monograph contains a healthy balance of opposing views on the role of the middle classes in the production of urban space. At its very core, the book is an exploration of “the lives and experiences of those middle-class Genoese who, seeking to escape consistently high unemployment rates, invented self-employment venues for themselves” (15).  The book does not “represent the city as a bounded and stable entity” (23), and it leaves room for investigating other creative practices informed by revitalization. Commandeered by blue- and white-collar workers in the 1960s, the parading life on display, passegiata, or an urban stroll, with the underlying air of aristocracy, is symbolized by the quirky cover photo with a quintessentially Italian Fiat 500 painted with a colorful cityscape of nearly uniform buildings—a combination of sloping roofs and high-rises.

(Guano, 2016)

The introduction, grounded in anthropology and urban theory, addresses students of neoliberalism while promising to present a cross-section of urbanity and its transformations, with a particular focus on the residual creative class. Following the outstanding literature review, Chapter 1, Chronotopes of Hope, is moderately autoethnographic as it traces the recent developments in Genoa’s rise to and fall from the level of Florence, Venice or Rome as an object of a tourist gaze, something in which the port city’s residents took great pride; this chapter provides chronotopic perspectives on the urban everyday starting with the 1970s and tracing the city’s ups and downs through the 2010s. The first major case study, Chapter 2, Genoa’s Magic Circle, narrates the dramatic events of the 2001 G8 Summit that cut short much hope for the city’s entrance to the global stage; the corollary of violence and state repression informs the discussion of local middle-class urbanity to present a different kind of aestheticization of the city stemming from its reimagining as a stage for the performance of a global political drama. Written as an ethnographic analysis of the gentrification that has unfolded in Genoa’s centro storico since the early 1990s, Chapter 3, Gentrification without Teleologies, presents a fascinating example in the study on spatial relations of solids vs. voids in an urban environment—the vertical stratification based on access to daylight; the chapter tackles gentrification as an assemblage of people, logics and materialities: one whereby a nexus of neoliberal rationality, the built environment and old and new neighborhood residents and users contribute to making a world whose emergent dynamics may, at times, unfold along the lines of the well-researched template of the capitalist “spatial fix”—and yet, at other times, they are considerably more complex. The discussion of how women eke out their living while being accused of stealing a man’s job serves as the framework for Chapter 4, Cultural Bricoleuses, with antique fairs and dealers as the subject against the backdrop of the transformation that has unfolded not just through the regeneration of the built environment, but also through spatial practices that are part of the urban everyday within an economy of consumable heritage based on the marketing of cultural and symbolic goods, services and experiences. Genoa’s walking tour guides who tread the tenuous line that separates academic knowledge from cultural consumption feature in Chapter 5, Touring the Hidden City, which contrasts the high vs. popular culture in the tourist vocation enmeshed in the aristocratic rejection of urban ostentation. The ethnography of the annual Suq, a multicultural festival—informed by its intentional hybrid spatiality—held annually in Genoa under the supervision of two women on a mission to further the cause of diversity in the city comprises Chapter 6, Utopia with No Guarantees, followed by a cautiously optimistic final research section of the monograph, Conclusion, that offers hope through a combination of empathy and sympathy Guano has for the city of her formative years where the never ending revolving door of businesses dying out, born, improved and declining points to a luminous future (195). The additional notes to various sections dispel any possible lack of clarity while framing the discussion in a much broader cultural event or a series of events, e.g., the Chinese migration to Italy.

The brevity of the monograph makes the work a victim of its author’s skill and expertise combined with the engaging and heartfelt narratives. As with any ethnography, a few elements of this one might have seemed outdated already at the time of press, and Guano realized that some of the realities she was analyzing were no longer quite as current. Any superficial deficiencies aside, Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization constitutes a solid contribution to the areas of anthropology, urban studies, aesthetics, political economy, labor studies, ethnography and gender studies—one could only wish to read more of such intricately and exquisitely crafted ethnographic portraits of cities in the 21st century.

Caesar Perkowski (Gordon State College)

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)

 

 

Slavoj Žižek, Yanis Varoufakis & Julian Assange @ Europe is Kaput!

Slavoj Žižek, Yanis Varoufakis & Julian Assange  at ‘Europe is Kaput!’ in London Nov. 16 2015.  What was said:  Video.   Alainah Rook has provided a transcript  of the evening at Southbank Centre.

hovat zizek varoufakis

Crucially, solidarity with Paris includes recognizing that similar experiences of bombing has been endured throughout Syria and Iraq by civilians.  Why is there no discussion of the role of the Gulf States?  Rather than repeating the tragedy of ‘us’ against ‘them’ in which countries declare that they are at ‘war’ with the Other, attention to the root causes of inequality and inhumanity are required.

War on the Other

Declaring war is the easy way out.  It panders to desires for revenge which perpetuate a cycle of violence on an international scale.  We need to confront the fear of difference and the operation of states for corporate interests rather than the rights and interests of citizens.

War on the ‘Grey Zone’

Assange points out how Clinton and Hollande are in effect consenting to Isis’ stated strategy of eliminating the ‘grey zone’ of tolerant, secular societies centred on human rights and creating a polarized, intolerant situation instead.  There is no ‘exit option’ being pursued for radicalized Muslims that would allow them to to see a more compassionate but still religious alternative.

‘You end capitalism; you end Isis’

Zizek’s closing call is to remove the competition over oil resources for which the Middle East is been an imperial playground for over a century.

Rebordering

Assange calls the Trans Pacific Partnership a “rebordering” of the economic and legal world.  A geostrategic shift such as this unites multiple, heterogenous forces in an ‘economic NATO’.  It locks in neoliberalism across continents but has not been engaged intellectually.

This is a provocative conversation for Canadians, sitting on vast energy reserves and themselves trying to grapple with these challenges: how not to be shunted aside by foreign, often state-owned, corporations; and how to move from an economy based on fluctuating ‘rent’ from the value of raw resources to ‘profit’ from the ingenuity of its people; how to courageously extend an ethics which is neither charity nor humanitarianism to welcome new refugees.

Listening to the Chair’s struggle to allow all three of his speakers to be heard, the last word to Rook for her hard work:

‘I believe it is not simply just that the content of the evening many will find either compelling or arguable, but that the success is in having the conversation at all. If there is a movement towards those who wish to unite, globally, sharing ideas and perspectives, reforms and solutions, many more conversations such as this will need to take place. But if the potential for its success is already laid out in available means: the Internet, discussion, and education – it is not unattainable.’

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta

Topologies and Landscape Architectures 1: Topology. Landscript 3

Vrin
Vrin, Val Lumnezia, Switzerland

Topology, Landscript 3.  Christophe Girto, Anette Freytag, Albert Kirchengast, Dunja Richter (eds). Institute of Landscape Architecture ETH Zürich. Berlin: Jovis. 2013.

Landscript 3 Topology is the outcome of a workshop and the project ‘Topology – on designing landscape today’ that looked at the integrative role of landscape architecture and sought a theoretical foundation that would strengthen the aesthetic theory and pedagogy of landscape architecture in the context of new, interdisciplinary perspectives on buildings, the environment and cities. Shortcomings in the translation makes for some difficult reading. Topology here refers to changing the extent, scale and dimensions of the tasks that landscape architecture has set for itself. Stepping beyond the garden of traditional landscape architecture, or the vista of landscapes, the profession is now interested in spatial relations more generally. Topology builds on Aristotle’s definitions of topoi and topic as a rhetorical concern with sorting out what the parts of an argument will consists of and preparing them.

There are a few nuggets that leap out of the text:

Design is understood as the taming of complexity, (Kirchengast p.26).

Lucius Burckhardt, a Swiss sociologist and urban planner, and André Corboz, an architectural historian, are introduced for their theory of landscape as a social product (2006) and as a concept projected onto the environment. In Die Kunst, Stadt un Land zum Sprechen zu bringen (Basel 2001) Corboz emphasizes that and territory is an historical palimpsest. Links to the American landscape historian J.B. Jackson are noted. A later post will compare with the work of Augustin Berque.

In Warum ist Landschaft schön? die Spaziergangswissenschaft (Berlin: Schmidt 2006) Burckhardt argues: “Since spatial landscape – as in the case of an English garden – his first produced through the eyes of a viewer, it is not only pictorial also significantly structured by time”. Burckhardt suggested taking “walks as an instrument in order to adequately involve this dimension of time. Strolling denotes a time-based organization of the space from a subjective perspective enables the formation of spatial relationships.”

“He did not consider planning and design to be active processes of creation an organization that resulted in “good form” and “clear systems”… ([But] the recognition and direction of the invisible impetus within systems… Determined scratch that no longer determined by the objects and their technical, practical functions.”

Landscape “flows” with the times and changes constantly. It is not an objective entity that can be defined as synthetic product of interaction relation that needs to be situated within the system of reference.  This provides links to my position that landscape as an intangible virtuality is both real and ideal and distinct from the actually existing fauna and flora.

This position is summarized in Gion Caminada’s development planning of the isolated Swiss village of Vrin, which exploits its remoteness in a manner that provides lessons for planners in other rural communities everywhere.

http://alpinewayoflife.tumblr.com/post/12749388389/vrin-stables-and-butchery-sut-vitg-by-gion

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta

Greece and the spatialisation of economic guilt

Satyajit Das commented on the geographical framing of financial crises:

European politicians and central bankers have provided useful geographical clarifications. Prior to succumbing to the inevitable, the Ireland told everyone that they were not Greece. Portugal is now telling everyone that it is not Greece or Ireland. Spain insists that it is not Greece, Ireland or Portugal. Italy says it is not in the “PIGS”. Belgium insists it was no “B” in “PIGS” or “PIIGS”.

Although never defined, in these discourses “Greece” becomes the spatial figure for an economic guilt complex, labelled as the geographical site of our own fears of disentitlement and moral discourses condemning profligacy.

At the same time as pointing out this process of spatialisation of crisis, the article turns on metaphors of economic “contagion”.  The understandings of flow, transmission and mobilities embedded in the idea of contagion have been critiqued by authors such as Van Loon, Anderson, Street and Nicols over many years in Space and Culture.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Debtor Colonies, Democracy and International Finance

The Greek / Euro debt crisis has elicited strong editorial writing in places such as The Guardian where George Monbiot argued:

The IMF is controlled by the rich, and governs the poor on their behalf. It’s now doing to Greece what it has done to one poor nation after another, from Argentina to Zambia. Its structural adjustment programmes have forced scores of elected governments to dismantle public spending, destroying health, education and all the means by which the wretched of the earth might improve their lives.

The same programme is imposed regardless of circumstance: every country the IMF colonises must place the control of inflation ahead of other economic objectives; immediately remove barriers to trade and the flow of capital; liberalise its banking system; reduce government spending on everything bar debt repayments; and privatise assets that can be sold to foreign investors.

Using the threat of its self-fulfilling prophecy (it warns the financial markets that countries that don’t submit to its demands are doomed), it has forced governments to abandon progressive policies. Almost single-handedly, it engineered the 1997 Asian financial crisis: by forcing governments to remove capital controls, it opened currencies to attack by financial speculators. Only countries such as Malaysia and China, which refused to cave in, escaped.

Consider the European Central Bank. Like most other central banks, it enjoys “political independence”. This does not mean that it is free from politics, only that it is free from democracy. It is ruled instead by the financial sector, whose interests it is constitutionally obliged to champion through its inflation target of around 2%.

Alex Tsipras has successfully broadened an economic debate into a broader debate about democratic self-determination in the context of financial crises that are created by unrealistic lending by banks and private investors guaranteed by IMF bailouts that effectively socialize debt and take over the risk incurred by private financial corporations.  cites Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyths’ The Future of the Euro in making a similar argument about the people versus the global financial elite:

“There are no sustainable technocratic solutions to the euro problem, which is an inherently political one, and will need political solutions. Democracy is not a mere error term in the non-linear regression of governance.” That is a lesson the eurozone elite has yet to learn.

From the usurous rates of credit cards and loan companies,  to bank fees, to the encouragement of consumer driven economic expansion, the unequal terms of banking have been apparent to the retail public for several decades.   Current debates over austerity policies have eroded the certainty of Thatcherite penny-wise logic of sustenance style economics.   Are we at a historical moment when the moral authority of banks and bankers is decisively questioned and the international financial system is unveiled as a form of colonialism that is global rather than being limited to regions – The “Asian” financial crisis, “African” debt and so on.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Together on Europe’s New Shore: Notes on a Migrant Drowning

Recently we have witnessed a media spectacle of old trawlers, their decks impossibly crowded with people. In videos and news images, swimmers clinging to wreckage and drowned bodies are cut with outraged advocates for children and human rights arguing that European values require a greater rescue effort. The BBC shows a coffin marked only as a numbered body being buried.  Solicitous news anchors divide up simplistic alternatives and politicians make dramatic proposals to drop bombs (that these will be in crowded civilian areas is not mentioned in the flurry of news-bites). These all contrast with the weighty, steady pressure of migration from countries that have up to 30 times lower per capital GDP than European countries, the imponderable causes and the slow, hidden deliberations that seem determined by bureaucracies focused on neoliberal economics that cannot contemplate expenditures by States on human issues unless forced to.

Continue reading Together on Europe’s New Shore: Notes on a Migrant Drowning