Category Archives: space and place

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)

Review: Spatializing Culture

Setha Low. (2017).  Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-94561-6.

(Setha Low, 2017)

Setha Low is an anthropologist long recognized for her contributions to the study of space and place.  In her most recent book, Spatializing Culture, Low draws on over twenty years of research to outline, clarify, and expand upon the concept of “spatializing culture,” which she has been developing since her 1996 article in American Ethnologist: “Spatializing culture: The social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica.”  While Low claims that her most recent book is not a review of space and place in anthropology (p. 11), in many ways, it functions as a survey of key formulations and theories that have influenced and generated current ethnographic research on space and place, providing illustrative examples of such ethnographic research from around the world.  Consequently, Spatializing Culture would be especially useful as an introduction to space and place for undergraduate and graduate students across various disciplines, particularly those that already utilize or would benefit from ethnographic methods such as anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, urban studies, and environmental psychology.

Low’s systematic organization of the material lends itself well for a textbook.  Apart from the requisite introduction and conclusion that highlight the importance and relevance of ethnography, space, and place, the second chapter, “Genealogies: The concepts of space and place” draws on the tradition of Foucault’s genealogies to structure the discussion of major influences.  Low loosely ties together ideas and theories that have influenced one another, whether through French social theory or disciplinary traditions such as architecture, geography, or anthropology as opposed to presenting a historiography of space and place. Her use of Venn diagrams of space and place to represent the relationship of these concepts as they are used and understood within different genealogies exemplifies her attempt to make the differing theoretical orientations accessible to novices.

As Low, herself, explains:

This book is organized around spatializing culture as a framework made up of various conceptual frames.  Each is examined with three objectives in mind.  The first is to trace its scholarly development and discuss its strengths and limitations….The second objective is to demonstrate how ethnography can elucidate each and provide insights into a range of places and problems….The third objective…is to show how the different conceptual frames overlap and intersect. (pp. 8-9)

Chapters three through eight explicate the six conceptual frames that constitute her framework for spatializing culture, titled 3) the social production of space, 4) the social construction of space, 5) embodied space, 6) language, discourse and space, 7) emotion, affect and space, and 8) translocal space.  The first half of each chapter provides the theoretical grounding that scholars have developed and used to understand space and place through the particular lens or frame of embodiment or language, for example, while the second half provides ethnographic examples of how these frames are operationalized.  The use of ethnographic examples, apart from being a major methodological contribution of Low’s anthropological background, serves to address two interacting methodological questions.  “How does the conceptual frame shape a particular research project,” and how, in turn, “ethnographic research help[s] to clarify and enhance the utility of the approach?” (p. 9)

It is clear that chapters three and four on the social production and social construction of space occupy what Low sees as the most significant or established ways in which space and place have been traditionally framed.  Moreover, her choice to begin with social production over social construction reveals her own political leanings that highlight materialist approaches to power, hegemonic processes, and relationships of inequality.  Where many scholars of space and place might begin with social construction as a departure point for understanding space and place in which social interaction and symbolic processes take the lead, Low’s attachment to an “engaged” anthropology demands a political alignment with those who have been systematically excluded, rendering their limited ways of constructing space practically invisible.  Low’s ethnographic examples for social production in Costa Rica and Taiwan demonstrate the strength of a social production frame that offers insights into unequal development, surveillance, and incursions of capitalism while her examples for social construction in Philadelphia and Beirut reveal how local communities contest redevelopment that ignores local meanings and attachments to places and spaces.

Chapter five on embodied spaces is Low’s response to the limited binary of social production and social construction.  In it she defines terms such as body, embodiment, and sensorium and places them within the complex literature that moves from proxemics, to phenomenology, to mobility.  Her ethnographic examples highlight how space can be located in the body, whether individual or collective, and provides avenues for coalescing social production and social construction within the body.

With subsequent chapters six through eight, the overlap with previous theoretical underpinnings becomes more pronounced and it appears that while ethnographic approaches within these frames certainly focus on discursive, affective, or translocal approaches, they play a more supportive or extending role tied to social production, social construction, or embodiment. This, of course, speaks to Low’s objective of demonstrating how these frames overlap and intersect, but also reveal the limitations of using these conceptual frames as an organizing structure for an ethnographic textbook. Nevertheless, the review of literature within each chapter is extensive, with ample examples of how different scholars theorize space and place through these frames.  Consider Low’s referencing Ben Anderson’s and Kathleen Stewart’s work to discuss how affective atmospheres circulate spatially through bodies and also extend beyond the body as a kind of sensory attunement to others’ worlds.  Their work demonstrates how Low’s conceptual frames of embodiment and affect can intersect.  The ethnographic examples in these chapters again offer an array of global research that takes us from New York  to Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Low acknowledges that her conceptual frames are not exhaustive, drawing particular attention to the largely absent notions of mediated and virtual frames.  While it may be true that such a treatment could easily fill another book, it is not difficult to imagine another chapter in which she traces the scholarly work in this area and provides one or two key ethnographic examples of how this plays out in understandings of space and place.  Could it be that an examination of virtual space challenges notions of traditional ethnography’s hold as a particularly useful method or that textual and mediated approaches push the boundaries of what constitutes ethnography? More likely, such an approach may be outside of Low’s own experiences as ways of understanding space and place, unlike the other six frames that are all born out of her own struggles to make sense of her ethnographic research.

This is a minor critique when we consider that as a textbook on space and place, Spatializing Culture offers much as a reference guide to key theories and demonstrates the contributions of an ethnographic approach. The organization of the text has its benefits and limitations with some redundancy in overlapping and intersecting approaches, but ultimately serves its student audience well.  Setha Low continues to make an important contribution to current understandings of space and place and makes complex ideas accessible through numerous examples that underscore the significance of studying space and place.  For those interested in a survey of ethnographic approaches to the study of space, place, and culture, Spatializing Culture is a worthwhile departure point.

Jessica Montalvo (University of South Florida)

 

References:

Low, S. M. (1996). Spatializing culture: the social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica. American ethnologist, 23(4), 861-879.