About Jason Luger

I am an urban theorist, practitioner, researcher, and lecturer. All opinions are my own.

Theater of the Oppressed: A Generative Method for an [Authoritarian / Populist] Paradigm?

This week, the renowned ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (ToTO) practitioner Jiwon Chung generously led a workshop in my UC Berkeley ‘Populism, Art, and the City’ course. Chung has had a long career studying and applying Agosto Boal’s methods of  ToTO / ‘forum theater’, in which the human body embodies power and oppressor / oppressed through movement, dialogue, and metaphor.

Through several curated exercises, Chung illustrated different power geometries – some that were physical, some emotional, and some more situational and dialogue-based. Through the practice of assuming certain shapes, uttering single words and making sounds, participants were able to embody and perform interpretations of power dynamics and different tactics / methods for resistance, subversion, and co-opting.

20180319_164538In the exercise above, Chung (pictured) asked participants to arrange the chairs (pictured) in ways in which one chair was more powerful than the others. Hinting at Foucault’s (1980) ‘circular’, rather than hierarchical view of how power operates, Chung noted the multiple ways of reading power in any given architecture. If one chair is placed ahead; it has all the power and yet none. If the chair is placed on top of the others, it has power that can be removed if the base becomes precarious.

20180319_161552In another activity, (pictured above), participants played the roles of student (facing) and teacher (back turned). The student was asking for an extension on an assignment; the teacher was attempting to stand firm on “no”. The difficult negotiation of playing (even non-deliberately) the role of ‘oppressor’, and the many contradictions inherent, made this challenging for both players.

20180319_161138Other activities involved movement only:  a participant in the center of a circle, hands outward, led two others, who then led two others, and so on, until the whole room became a swirling mass of human movement which was more chaotic at the circle’s outer edges. This, explained Chung, represents the power dynamic of a society, an institution, a capitalist economy, or a State (a school of fish? A complex adaptive system? a digital network?). The point being that the individual at the center can dictate a mass of related actions / reactions by relatively small movements; those at the outer edges must fight harder to stay with the circle.

Where, within these power dynamics, are the spaces for resistance – for upending, for changing the dynamics and erasing the boundary between oppressor, oppressed? Participants had differing ideas and creative visions, from slight variations in movement, to ‘tickling’ to induce laughter, empathy to disarm, strength to make weak, taking photos to expose (Wikileaks exposes tyranny!). Through the 3 hours of activities and conversation, the group of participants came to understand not only Foucault; but the nature of power; institutions; and resistance in practical and applicable ways not possible in a normal theoretical discussion.

The afternoon left me thinking about the tremendous generative potential of such theater in today’s divided paradigm; one that is increasingly re-shaped and re-framed along both authoritarian and populist lines. Digital networks circle around the guiding hand of powerful ‘tech’ titans. Yet, micro-interactions online are capable to ricocheting upwards to transform the tech companies themselves.

Groups divided along partisan lines – red state, blue state, green state – come together in populist fervor around shared sentiments of oppression, even if “the oppressor” is not always tangible (globalization? the EU? immigrants? the police? the gun lobby? the tax collector?). The ways that solidarity can both unite – and liberate – deserve broader exploration in the age of identity politics and neoliberalism’s fetishizing of the individual.

What potential is there to use ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ – long treasured by activists, mostly on the left, as a mainstream tool to bridge these divides and further conversation, facilitation, cooperation, transformation? The power of such theater has been recognized by governments such as Singapore, who first banned the practice after it was associated with Latin American Marxists but later re-instated the practice as a useful tool of nation-building. This brings up further questions – can ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ be used to coerce, to solidify, to divide, and to reify oppressive power systems and structures?

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Above – Forum Theater in Singapore (Courtesy of the TheOnlineCitizen). 

What is the implication of a center-right, authoritarian government like Singapore frequently deploying forum theater to help build nation and national harmony – is a fascist state a sort of macro-scale performance of Boal’s theater? Can the ‘Alt-Right’ use such methods to gain solidarity around white nationalist causes, twisting conceptions of oppressed / oppressor?

Larger questions such as these generate intrigue for further study, or further performance-based dialogues as we (as a society) continue to reckon with, and struggle to define, a global landscape of power that is rapidly shifting in both emancipatory and repressive directions. *

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Dreaming of Japan’s Urbanscape

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I had the pleasure of making a first visit to Japan over the holiday break – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Kobe, and the small mountain town of Takayama. Japan and its somewhat mythologized urbanscapes are one of the places often represented, symbolized, and stereotyped in film and popular imagination – the great economic competitor to America’s post-war boom; generator of ‘better’ cars, electronics, games, and cartoons; and succumbing to the nuclear-monster Godzilla’s destructive whims. The disconnections, contradictions and synergies between US and Japan have been perhaps carelessly portrayed in films like ‘Mr Baseball’ (the failed USA baseball player finds fame in Japan, and a love interest to boot); or more recently, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’, featuring the actor-playing-the-actor Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (wife of a travelling businessman), largely cloistered in their Western-enclave Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking a vast city they lack the skills (or desire) to engage with.

These, and many other portrayals, have a somewhat imperial / colonial bent – the United States was, after all, an occupier of Japan from the end of World War II to 1952 and still maintains a heavy military presence. And follows in the older tradition of orientalist portrayals of ‘the East’, which typically feature Western-male (macho) characters interacting in a subjegative and misogynistic manner with feminized and passive Asian characters (both male and female) (see ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’, among others).

In approaching Japan – the world’s third (nearly second) largest economy, and Tokyo – the world’s largest urban region, at approximately 37 million people – I was conscious of my own formative views of Japan partly based on these tropes; and of the urban literature on Asian cities and ‘comparative urbanism’ which both falls back upon, and departs from, myths, stereotypes, and assumptions.

Rem Koolhaas mused that ‘A skyline rises… in the East’ (in Roy and Ong, 2011), a fairly common ‘otherized’ view of the unapproachable, vast, and super-scaled East Asian metropolis, a place of envisioned strange, hyper-modern processes; buildings too-tall to scale; populations too vast to count.

However, Roy and Ong (2011) caution that “the vagaries of urban fate cannot be reduced to the workings of universal laws established by capitalism or colonial history” (2011, introduction). Aihwa Ong suggests moving away from an assumed comparison of cities like Tokyo with any one model or trajectory toward / through modernity, proposing that:

“alternative modernity,”…suggests the kinds of modernity that are (1) constituted by different sets of relations between the developmental and the post-developmental
state, its population and global capital; and (2) constructed by political
and social elites who appropriate “Western” knowledges and represent
them as truth claims about their own countries.’ (Ong, 1999: 35).

In our 2015 paper (Ren and Luger, IJURR, 2015) we navigated the ways that approaching Asian urbanism through a ‘cosmopolitan’, comparative lens is a necessary, but fraught process: how to chart and define observations from places like Tokyo without reference to parallel modernities, patterns, systems? How to engage across language and cultural barriers, looking down at a city from a hotel room, without remaining trapped in the ‘observer, outsider’ lens – is there in fact value of reconciling ‘outsider’ perspective in making valid observations, connections, assumptions? How to talk about a place like Japan without exoticism, orientalism, imperialism, tokenism?

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Am I therefore wrong to say that Tokyo’s neon canyons – vast, confusing and beautiful; the trains, gliding like ice dancers with perfect precision; the food, universally outstanding and artistic; and the general pace of life I observed – measured, methodical, process-oriented, are unique and inherently “Japanese?”

Must we always speak of alternative, multiple modernities, or can there be a sort of middle-ground between a distinctive ‘Japanese’ urban modernity (a unique blend of ancient Japanese textures, 20th-century destruction and reconstruction, largely American-financed; and 21st century Pan-Asian blends) and a global, urban, 21st century modern form?

This seems to remain the key tension between urban theorists striving to form a unified urban ‘model’ in which urbansim assumes a ‘planetary’, modern form and exists at once, in all places – (see Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Scott and Storper, 2015) and those who reject this, proposing that site-specificity may be incomparable, incommensurable, impossible to reduce or universalize. Logan, 2011 asked, ‘to what do we compare China?’

My observations were complicated further by living where I do, in the polyglot and cosmopolitan California Bay Area, home to not only one of the largest Japanese diaspora populations, but huge Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Taiwanese communities as well. The food I eat on a regular basis, and elements of daily culture in San Francisco, take on bits and pieces of traditional ‘Japanese’ characteristics, blended uniquely with the broader Northern California melting pot. It is not, therefore, foreign to encounter those who do not speak English; to be asked to remove shoes when entering a home or business; to eat green tea ice cream; or queue for 2 hours for sushi or ramen (as is common in Tokyo).

Perhaps, it is the land itself – the earth, mountains, soil – that are incomparable and most uniquely situated to a place, most uniquely Japanese. People, ideas, foods, cultures, religions and technologies move, blend, and replicate; mountains like Fuji (holy in the Shinto religion) do not. It was in the zen gardens of Buddhist/Shinto temples that surround Kyoto that Japan seemed to present itself in its purest form; unique formations of rock, trees, moss and soil charged with spiritual and symbolic significance. At one garden, pebbles formed the shape of Mount Fuji itself. This was, I thought to myself, Japan, and nothing is lost to translation. 

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Brenner, N. and Schmid, C., 2015. Towards a new epistemology of the urban?. City19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Logan, J. ed., 2011. Urban China in transition (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, A., 1999. Flexible Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press

Ren, J. and Luger, J., 2015. Comparative urbanism and the ‘Asian City’: Implications for research and theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.145-156.

Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds., 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.

Scott, A.J. and Storper, M., 2015. The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.1-15.

 

Envisioning Cities in an Authoritarian Age

Is there such a thing as an ‘authoritarian city?’ If so, where is this city,  what does it look like, how does it operate, and what are the textures of the power flows within, across, and beyond it?

Foucault (1980) envisioned a circular, rather than top-down flow of power, in a similar vein to the way that Arendt (1958) complicated extant understandings of power flows from, and across, the grassroots.

 

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Indeed, if urbanism is global in scale and planetary in operations (as Brenner and Schmid, 2015 propose), then perhaps authoritarianism is likewise planetary. And if this is so, then all cities are, by extension, comprised of the full range of authoritarian flows, processes, structures, and institutions. Such a reality would necessitate a huge broadening of the approach to authoritarianism, urban studies, and the geographies of power, which often sit cloistered in area studies or political science research. If there is no ‘Global East’, ‘Global West’, or territorial delineation between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ – which is a fair argument, given the rise of dictators in the United States and the rise of liberal arts colleges in places such as Singapore – then how to expand and deepen the understanding of power, place, and the urban? I propose that such an expansion is necessary as we continue the paradigmatic shift into a new planetary authoritarian age.

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City, 19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Pantheon Books, New York, NY.

The Amazon-Race: Are we Edgy, Real, and Urban Enough for Jeff Bezos?

At the time of this writing, 238 cities have submitted official bids to Amazon in order to be considered for Amazon’s second headquarters, supplementing their base in Seattle.

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There is a long and ongoing debate within economic geography (and related fields) about the costs and benefits of such competitions for major corporate expansions and relocations. Literature can be found that is supportive of intra-urban competition, tax incentives, and boasts of the intangible economic multipliers and dividends that these companies can bring (sometimes academic, but often led by think-tanks and consultancies). More critical literature (from geographers such as David Harvey, and many others who have critiqued the neoliberal urban economy) questions whether awarding companies such as Amazon tax and other incentives really pays off, especially in addressing structural problems and societal injustices. To be fair, a nuanced exploration can find examples where incentives might be judged to have succeeded, and others where they have clearly failed.

Regardless of this ongoing debate, one thing that is fascinating to me (and relatively unexplored) is the way that cities (and regions) present themselves during these processes, culminating in the 5-minute “bid videos” that are hand-crafted by local officials to showcase certain aspects that the courted company (in this case, Amazon), might find appealing. “Bid videos” are perhaps more famous when used for mega-events such as the Olympics, but are often featured in economic development efforts of the corporate type. For the viewer, they run the spectrum from inspiring to cringeworthy.

The psychology of the city bid video could be a sub-field within urban cultural studies, and I think would make a pretty interesting research sub-agenda (and a really fun conference session or two). From this topic, a series of questions emerge that deserve exploration:

Who is involved in these efforts, and what informs their worldviews?

Why are certain subjects, images, themes, symbols, sounds, and text chosen – and what are the meanings (or attempted meanings) attached to them?

Who ‘owns’ a city’s self-identity – and at what point is this agreed upon, or in a state of constant negotiation and formation, what are the competing conceptions of identity?

Where are the misunderstandings and disconnects between what local groups ‘think’ a company like Amazon wants, and what Amazon’s decision makers are really looking for?

To what degree do notions of ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’ (referring to Bourdieu) deliberately or non-deliberately enter these processes; the subtle spoken and unspoken cues and clues meant to reach and connect with certain audiences?

What power relationships, power geometries, and uneven / exploitative structures are reinforced, questioned, or challenged in these efforts and marketing materials? Are there opportunities for subversions; for resistances; for progressive transformations – or must this be an (and caught within) inherently unjust neoliberal process / processes?

I link here (below) two similar, and yet so different, videos in the AMAZON-RACE: Charlotte’s (cringeworthy) effort to be seen as an edgy, hip, urban Millennial hotspot (count how many times the word “millennial” is mentioned in the video) and Detroit’s (somewhat more inspirational) showcase of its unique identity.

Both, interestingly, are written / performed in “spoken word” – the urban poetry form that is often associated with contemporary intellectual African-American-hipster communities. For Detroit, a city that has been majority African-American for decades, and is a national and international center of African-American music, culture and history – this representation seems somewhat natural (even given Amazon’s relative whiteness, coming from Seattle, a city in the least African-American part of the country). For Charlotte, however, there is a bigger question mark: is it to appease Pacific Northwesterners who might be wary of lasting racial attitudes in a Southern city? An effort to seem culturally relevant, offering the sort of culture that so-called Millennials are deemed to want and crave? Or a badly-disguised and unapologetic appropriation of an urban African-American art form for a corporate relocation largely planned by and benefiting affluent whites? Or, is it simply an example of what local critics have previously called Charlotte’s “Pinocchio” syndrome – the incessant need to say, “look, papa, I’m a REAL city!?” (with “Papa” in this case being Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man).

Perhaps these conclusions are best left to the eye and interpretation of the viewer, or a researcher interested in further exploring these questions. And the conclusions may be informed by whichever city Amazon picks, if indeed, their exercise is not just illusory.

Detroit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO4J_PC1b5M

Charlotte: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s1-0khtLps&t=6s

Whither the Creative City? The Comeuppance of Richard Florida

Talent, Technology, and Tolerance, said Florida (2002), were the pre-conditions for a successful urban economy. Florida’s ‘creative class’ theory, much copied, emulated and critically maligned, delineated urban regions with ‘talent’ (PhDs); ‘technology’ (things like patents granted); and ‘tolerance’ (represented by a rather arbitrary ‘gay index’ of same-sex households in census data).

This combination, according to Florida’s interpretation of his data, indicated urban creative ‘winners’ versus urban ‘losers’: blue collar cities with more traditional economies and traditional worldviews. Creative people want to be around other creative people, wrote Florida, so failing to provide an ideal urban environment for them will result in their ‘flight’ (2005) and the loss of all the benefits of the creative economy. Therefore, to win in the ‘new economy’ (Harvey, 1989), cities need to compete for, and win the affections of, the ‘creative class’. Or so Florida then-believed.

Policymakers were keen to spread the ‘gospel’ of the ‘creative city’ (Peck, 2005) and despite its methodological question marks, the idea has found traction in both North American/European and Non-Western contexts. Florida’s books were ‘required reading’ for urban policy officials in Singapore, for example – one direct quote given to me during my doctoral research on cultural policy in the City-State (2012-2013). The rather awkward linkage between Florida’s North-American theoretical perspective and Singapore’s loosening restrictions on ‘table top dancing’ (in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) is just one of many examples of the haphazard yet fervent application of policies geared toward an envisioned (and mythologized) ‘creative’ elite.

The elite nature of the ‘creatives’ that Florida conjured into being, and the sharp delineation between urban ‘winners’ (creative) and ‘losers’ (non-creative), were not lost on Florida’s critics (among them, Peck 2005; McCann, 2007; Zimmerman, 2008), who quickly equated these ideas as neoliberal economics wrapped in a one-size-fits-all disguise.

This division, however, has become especially prescient since the 2008 financial crash, and in light of the sweeping socio-political movements that swept populist leaders like Donald Trump into power. What unifies populist movements from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Brexit’ are reactions against urban elites and globally-focused cosmopolitan ideas. In other words, the very things Florida suggested cities needed to win.

Map of ‘Brexit’ Voting Patterns, with London inset 

It seems that Florida himself, who has made a (successful) career out of the ‘creative city’ thesis, has now come full circle and has re-thought, critically, his own theories (having sold enough copies of his books to enable him the luxury of such a self-critique).

His recent book, ‘The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What we Can Do About It’ (2017), recognizes the problems in the increasing gap between elite, cosmopolitan cities and more traditional / conservative hinterlands. Indeed, Florida recognizes this gap is tearing apart the fabric of society, a fair and just observation.

Florida’s new argument is a sort of conceptual throat-clearing of why this gap is problematic and he adopts a much more left-wing approach than he has taken previously in suggesting some ways to combat the divide (solutions like affordable housing built on a mass scale, to make it easier for people of all incomes to live and remain in ‘winning’ cities where they are now priced out and displaced). The achievability of these solutions are left for urban policy officials to figure out, but the sentiment, at least, mirrors the growing and urgent call for housing equity in the world’s most expensive (and unequal) cities.

So, perhaps the new book represents the self-imposed end of the ‘creative city’ paradigm (which had a lifespan from 2002 to 2017, a healthy 15 years). The ‘creative city’ is dead, even if still dominant (to re-phrase Neil Smith’s 2008 musings on neoliberalism’s demise and and paradoxical resilience). If, as critics attested, the ‘creative city’ is inherently a neoliberal concept, then, as neoliberalism collapses under its own crisis-prone weight, so must the ‘creative city’. So what comes next?

What I find remarkable about this shift is the rapid speed at which the discourse has changed. Florida was not the only voice in the 2000-2017 time period arguing for the dominance of ‘winning’ cities: see also Edward Glaeser’s book ‘The Triumph of the City’, (2011) which in a slightly different yet similar vein, outlines a winning model of a city that has ‘made us richer, smarter, greener’ (with Manhattan portrayed on the book’s cover). And associated policy – pieces on ‘super-mayors’, and the potential for individual cities to change the world, released by urban think tanks (based in some of Florida’s ‘winners’).

From Silicon Valley’s homeless camps to London’s tragic Grenfell fire and the rejection of that city by Brexit voters, it now seems that the world’s dominant (economically, anyway) cities have emerged into the post-neoliberal age as highly vulnerable (rather than simply ‘winners’) and rife with problems. Furthermore, the resilience of deep poverty, and a falling standard of living in cities in the Global South (and North), pose difficult questions for urbanists who have long considered the ‘city’ as the ideal form of human settlement. If the city isn’t making us richer, smarter, or greener – and by extension, if the city is causing dangerous socio-cultural-political divides that threaten to topple longstanding stable world governments and institutions – then is the way forward anti-urban, decentralized and bucolic, as envisioned by earlier urbanists such as Frank Lloyd Wright (in his vision for ‘Broadacre City’, 1935?).

Wright’s ‘Broadacre City’, 1935

As new technologies like driverless cars and IT infrastructure continue to shrink distances and re-shape settlement and labor patterns, and as anti-urban movements re-shape the political landscape in dramatic and paradigmatic ways,  it remains to be seen which cities will ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in the future;  or even if the city will remain the prototype for human co-habitation at all. Indeed, the future might be a rural one: will Florida’s next book be entitled ‘The Creative Hinterland,’ written from the comfort of a self-sustaining 40-acre exurban ranch?

The City of Tomorrow…Today

I recently attended an event in San Francisco sponsored by Ford Motor Company called ‘The City of Tomorrow’, focusing on the future of urban mobility.

http://fordcityoftomorrow.com/

Topics included driverless technology, such as recreational driverless cars, delivery and public transit. Speakers from the public and private sectors as well as academia moderated discussions on the implications of this new technology and some positive, and potentially troubling outcomes. Since Ford is bullish on driverless technology, the overall spin was a positive one – though critical questions from the audience were addressed (such as the potential mass unemployment that automation might induce). Millions of jobs depend on ‘driving’, from delivery and logistics to taxis and other services. Speakers discussed the positive benefits – time saving; cleaner air; fewer accidents; less sprawl; less congestion, and a public realm free of parking lots and exhaust. But there were also questions like, ‘will people walk less, if their car will drive them places? Will this lead to more, rather than less, obesity?’. Different speakers had different angles.

But all speakers agreed on one thing: these changes are underway, not hypothetical. Tomorrow is today. 

One of the speakers was Ford C.E.O. James Hackett, who discussed Ford’s future vision to the roughly 600 attendees (a mix of industry types, city planners and mobility policy officials, and the odd academic like myself). The overall feel was rather utopian, with futurist quotes and slogans about inclusivity, participation and just outcomes.

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I found the event chillingly timely, given the comparisons to the Ford pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. That fair’s concept was ‘The World of Tomorrow’, and Ford presented a model ‘City of Tomorrow’ with ‘Roads of Tomorrow’, showcasing the emerging trend of superhighways and modernist-sprawling urban forms.

Ford Pavilion ‘Roads of Tomorrow’ at 1939 World’s Fair, New York

Then, as now, society was at the cusp of exciting, yet dramatic technological changes that would re-shape and reconfigure cities and urban life. More darkly, I was reminded that now, as was the case then, we are at time of rising authoritarianism and rising right-wing and left-wing social movements. The many other parallels to draw between 1939 and today are well documented in current popular discussions.

As we now know, the ‘tomorrow’ after 1939 was not utopian, but extremely dystopian, with the world descending into war, and right-wing hysteria leading to the invention of industrial-scale genocide. War aside, we also now know that Ford’s vision for a personal-car based urban world of mass suburbanization, which seemed like a good future at the time, was fundamentally unsustainable. The deliberate destruction of public transit systems (in the USA, a process that was pushed by Ford and its suppliers); the stretching of cities into highway-clogged agglomerations, and the dispersal of jobs into far-flung locations has resulted in a host of problems, from fossil-fuel related climate change to the structural poverty, obesity, and social alienation endemic to sprawl. Sprawl has been blamed for everything from the current socio-cultural divides that are tearing apart America’s political fabric, to the housing bubble that caused the 2008-2009 financial crisis. ‘The City on the Highway’, as Peter Hall outlined (in his book ‘Cities of Tomorrow’, 1988) is fundamentally a segregated and dysfunctional urban form.

Once again, Ford is promising a vision of the future. Once again, we await tomorrow, today, with optimism and a tinge of fearful apprehension.

On Good v. Bad Urban Government, City-States, and Cultural Symbols: Reflections from Fallen / Falling Empires

On a recent trip to Italy, I had the pleasure of visiting the cities of Rome and Siena. Rome, the “Eternal City”, enchants with its multiple layers of history. The modern city super-imposed on several earlier urban texts: Mussolini’s functional and monumental fascist infrastructure on top of the Baroque city of flourishes and curves; the neo-classical Renaissance city on top of a messy Medieval street grid; Medieval housing blocks on top of ancient Roman foundations, which in turn sit upon even earlier foundations (Greek, Etruscan, etc.). A shopkeeper informed me that beneath her shop was an Egyptian temple.

Siena, one of the powerful and wealthy Renaissance city-states, arguably the Frankfurt of its time in terms of its banking dynasties (Monte dei Paschi di Siena is still one of Italy’s largest banks), sits atop a hill crowned by a marble-clad cathedral.

I have visited Italy before, most recently in 2009 and before that, studied one undergraduate semester in Rome (in 2004). But this summer’s visit felt especially timely and powerful, given the stories that these ancient cities tell about the waves of history and the rise and fall of empires. It is perhaps cliched to compare Rome’s rise and fall to Pax Americana and / or the rise and fall of the global capitalist empire, but it is hard to avoid such comparisons (at the time of this writing, a controversial play portrays Donald Trump as Julius Caeser, widely considered Rome’s first dictator). The Colosseum towers above the crowds with its numbered entries, as global cities build and destroy sport arenas constructed in the same way. The market (or shopping malls of its day) of Emperor Trajan (below) crumbles beneath modern retail advertisements, as modern retail itself creatively destroys itself with Amazon and drone-delivery. History is always present.

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In particular, I was struck with three thoughts while meandering through cobblestone streets.

1. Urban Governance as “Bad” or “Good”: Both the ancient Roman urban world and the Renaissance Italian era had very strong and well-developed concepts of “good” v. “bad” urban government, that are directly relatable to our contemporary era. 21st-century urban governance is fraught, difficult, and increasingly characterized by divides and schisms within the new global populism. “Good” urban mayors emerge as global superstars (in popular imagination, LA’s Villaraigosa or Bogota’s Penelosa come to mind); while “bad” mayors seem determined to destroy, rather than to build, urban best practice (Toronto’s Rob Ford one recent example). In an urban world where an increasing majority of humans live in cities, and cities compete globally in an interlinked economy, the difference between good and bad urban governance has huge implications.

This was starkly the case as well in 14th century Siena. While touring Siena’s medieval city hall, I came across three frescoes dating from 1338-1339, painted by Amborgio Lorenzetti, representing the allegory of “good and bad government” (see below). 20170622_154044

“Bad government” (above) features the devil-like horned tyrant, while the captive figure of Justice lies bound. They are flanked by the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War, and above, float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. These figures, according to an advice book for city magistrates of the time, were considered to be the “leading enemies of human life” (Skinner, 2009). Surely these same character flaws apply to many vainglorious modern mayors, council members, civic leaders. 20170622_154033Meanwhile, in the allegory of “good government” above, there are six crowned, stately female figures: Peace, Fortitude and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice on the right. “Peace”, however, sits upon a cache of weapons: a city maintains its peace but must not surrender its strength if attacked.

In the new populism, cities around the world are maligned, otherized, and blamed for many of society’s ills (e.g. the anti-urban language of New Yorker Donald Trump, or the anti-London rhetoric of the pro-Brexit discourse in Britain). Siena’s leaders understood the power of good urban governance as a tool to placate the people, a lesson relevant today.

2. City-States as a Natural Political / Economic / Cultural Organization

Medieval and Renaissance Italy was not a unified nation (that wouldn’t happen until the 1870s), but rather a competitive collection of powerful, autonomous City-States that gained commercial, political and cultural dominance at different times. Venice, Genoa, Florence and Siena are just four examples of this territorial organization. Each city maintained a powerful army; had a powerful economic competitive advantage usually centered around one or a cluster of specialized trades; and also cultivated a unique sense of self and culture through the patronage of art and architecture. Time also cultivated a distinctly local, rather than national sense of belonging; unique customs and traditions, and in many cases even distinct dialects and languages.

The 19th century through the end of the Cold War was a period of national unification and amalgamation, as unique cities with centuries of history were swept up into the re-ordering of empires and joined into (often artificial) nation-state boundaries. “Italy” and “Germany” came into being; and “Yugoslavia” was just one example of the blurring of smaller boundaries into a larger whole. The advent of the European Union in the late 20th century is perhaps the most prescient example of the collapsing of the city-state layer of government into a broader sense of global region. Many other national and supra-national clusters emerged, from NAFTA and MERCOSUR to ASEAN and OPEC. Urbanism was envisioned by theorists as increasingly “planetary” (see Brenner, 2014), embedded in relational global flows and networks and no longer tied specifically to particular geographies. Harvey (1989) predicted this new global urban geography in late capitalism, as global supply chains and labour flows circulated more rapidly in an increasingly flat world.

However, more recently, the failures of the 19th and 20th-century conception of the “nation state” or even “global region” seem to point again to the primacy of the City-State as a rational, and even utopian, scale of global territorial governance and organization. One can point toward the (economic) success of City-State models such as Singapore, or to the increasing dominance of mayors and urban leaders in terms of global governance and policy. Localism has challenged notions of state, nation and region from Brexit to the continued attack on Federalism v. State in the United States (by the right-wing); cities in the Global South are emerging as command centers for larger and larger hinterlands as rural to urban migrations continue from Africa to China. Indeed, some argue that in certain contexts, effective national governance is becoming nearly impossible. Britain continues to devolve power to locally-elected mayors (following the American model). As the United States rejects global climate change accords, its mayors commit their cities to CO2 reduction.

Amidst the flows of the current populist Balkanization (which also manifests in cyberspace), we may be returning to an age like that in which Siena fought for dominance with its urban counterparts.

3. Cultural Symbols as Essential to the Old, and New Nationalism 

20170629_163545Somewhat contrasting the observations above, I had another thought while meandering through the ruins of the Roman Forum. The most poignant artifact I encountered was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins (above), where beautiful statues of the Vestal Virgins have miraculously survived the millenia. The Virgins guarded the “Sacred Fire of Vesta”, Rome’s eternal flame, and its most poignant and holy cultural symbol. Popular lore stated that should the flame be extinguished, so would Rome’s heart. Entry to the Temple was strictly forbidden, save for a select few.

As the Roman Empire slowly collapsed due to both internal and external forces, splitting into two (with the power center moving East to Constantinople) and sacked / burned several times by marauding intruders, still the flame burned.

Finally, in  394 AD, by order of the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, the rites of Vesta ended and the fire was extinguished. A collective sigh resonated through Rome’s chattering classes, chronicled by Roman historians. The weight of this symbolic act was apparent, even then.

This anecdote was chilling to me. I began to think about what our contemporary cultural symbols are: what is the metaphorical “fire” that burns at the heart of our civilization? What is the eternal flame that maintains human light, hope, development? What will it look like were it to be extinguished, and it what ways might this happen?

Has our eternal flame already been extinguished, and will future historians be able to point to an event that has already occurred, to events occurring all around us today?

As we continue to lament the fall of many of our institutions (in America, for example, bipartisan government; public education; a non-partisan judiciary, just to name three), we may be too distracted to notice when indeed, the fire is put out. Let’s hope we keep it burning.

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