Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cities of Equals? Rethinking Urban Politics with Jacques Rancière (... and my buddy Mark Davidson)

For quite a while, I've been wanting to write a post about Jacques Rancière's work on politics and its potential usefulness for those of us interested in the relationship between cities and citizenship. Most of that material has subsequently ended up in stuff I've written elsewhere, so rather than write a long post here, I figured I could at least say a few brief things about why I've found his work so interesting, and what I've tried to do with it...

I first encountered Rancière's work while reading Kristin Ross's awesome book May '68 and its Afterlives. There, she used some of Rancière's work on politics and police in two ways. First, her analysis of the politics of  '68 is heavily influenced by the notion that these events involved a radical form of 'displacement' in which people refused to be reduced to the 'proper' activities associated with their identification as 'students', 'workers', 'farmers, etc. Second, she draws on Rancière to analyse the ways in which revisionist accounts of the events tended to 'police' them by insisting that they were part of an emergent consensus about the need to modernise French society, rather than events which introduced dissensus about the nature of French society. Mustafa Dikeç's book Badlands of the Republic also used Rancière to demonstrate the ways in which people from the banlieue were denied a political voice in French society.

So, for a little background on Rancière, I can highly recommend this piece from the Critical Theory blog: Who the fuck is Jacques Rancière? Rancière's particular approach to politics developed out of frustration with the 'laughable' distance he perceived between the events of May 1968 in Paris and the structural Marxism associated with Althusser (with whom Rancière worked on Reading Capital). This frustration initially sent him into the archives, looking for the ways in which working people had confronted their circumstances in nineteenth century France.

Two key ideas that emerged out of this work were his particular approach to equality and democratic politics, and the associated notion of politics as challenging the 'partition of the perceptible'. To explain briefly (and probably badly!), a key claim now associated with Rancière is the notion that in democratic politics, equality is not so much something that one strives towards (as in, "the world is unequal, so we need equality!"), but something that we enact in a given situation (as in, "we are equals, and society isn't recognising our equality, so we are going to make another world that does!"). By tracing the meaning and consequences of equality in a situation, democratic politics involves a confrontation with the 'partition of the perceptible' that polices the social. The 'partition of the perceptible' describes the situation in which only some things seem to be 'sayable' or 'doable' in any given society. Of course, this concept is not something original to Rancière! But I do kinda like the particular way he discusses this, and the challenge it poses for politics. His emphasis on politics as a process in which people manage to make "another time with that time, another space within that space" sits nicely with the ways in which I understand the challenging of making counter-public spaces and spheres.

Anyways ... I'm excited to say that the fruits of some of this reading, thinking, talking and research are making it into print. Mark Davidson and I have written two papers together, both of which are now available. And I've done a few more on my own. So, in an act of shameless self-promotion (but hey, it's my blog I guess...!), here's some brief info about the papers and what they are trying to achieve.

1. "Recovering the politics of the city: from the 'post-political city' to a 'method of equality' for critical urban theory", Progress in Human Geography (with Mark Davidson).

This piece was written Mark and I were getting deeper into some of Rancière's work, and finding it really exciting because we felt that it helped us chart a path between 'politics is everywhere' and 'politics is nowhere'. In this particular paper, we warn against the idea of the 'post-political city' ... not by saying that 'hey, everything's political, and there's politics everywhere!', but rather by focusing on  situated enactments of equality through processes of political subjectification as the basis of democratic politics. Rancière suggests his approach can be defined as a 'method of equality', one that seeks to draw out the connections between enactments of equality that take place in different historical and geographical contexts.

2. "Occupations, Mediations, Subjectifications: Fabricating Politics", Space and Polity (with Mark Davidson).

This one is part of a collection of papers on Rancière. We were really excited to be asked to contribute, and it was a great opportunity to apply (and extend) some of the thinking we'd done for our other paper to engage with the inspiring political mobilisations that have been going on in several cities over the past few years. The article draws on Rancière to examine the relationship between urban space and politics in these events ... both to help us make sense of the events, but also to build on Rancière's work to trace out the geographical dimensions of politics.

3. "Policing the City", in Urban Politics: Critical Approaches, edited by Mark Davidson and Deborah Martin.

This chapter riffs on the relationship between politics and police (a central relationship in Rancière's work), but unlike the two pieces above, this one is focused on the 'police' end of the spectrum. Thinking through the practice of graffiti (I can't help myself!), the chapter draws on Rancière's approach to policing to demonstrate the broad range of actors involved in efforts to put graffiti in its 'proper' place, from urban authorities like police and urban designers to youth workers and graffiti artists themselves. Rancière, Rudy Giuliani, Banksy and Robbo all make appearances. This one was fun to write too ... and hopefully illustrates the usefulness of Rancière's work in helping us to think through the practice of policing beyond the actions of the uniformed police.

4. "Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City", International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

This one came out of a presentation I gave ages ago at a conference on the right to the city organised by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg. With all the excitement about the 'micro-spatial' interventions of DIY urbanists in hacking and reclaiming urban spaces, the paper sets out to ask about the kinds of 'right to the city' that are being enacted. Conceptually, the paper draws on both Rancière and Lefebvre to develop a framework for interrogating the politics of DIY practices. Empirically, I discuss both BUGAUP and the Public Ad Campaign as examples of DIY urbanism that enact a democratic right to the city premised on the equality of urban inhabitants. There's some hopeful speculation at the end about how various DIY practices might begin to add up to more than the sum of their parts, through a shared commitment to democratic urban politics.

5. "Building a City for 'The People': the politics of alliance building in the Sydney green ban movement", Antipode.

I've already mentioned on the blog that I have a piece included in a special issue of Antipode on Grammars of Urban Injustice. I kinda feel like I've had Rancière hovering over my shoulder while in the archives doing this project - as noted above, his 'method of equality' emerged from archival research. While the paper takes issue with some of Rancière's blind spots (especially on the question of political organisation), this paper is particularly influenced by his work in its content and its form. In particular, I was really keen to structure the paper around the voices of diverse green ban activists, who had their own analysis of the forms of politics they practiced.

As ever, if you'd like copies of any of these and can't get hold of them, drop me a line...

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