Notes on Brenner’s “The urban age in question: towards a new epistemology of the urban”

Neil Brenner
“The urban age in question: towards a new epistemology of the urban”
17 March 2015
Melbourne School of Design
The University of Melbourne

Talk in conjunction w/ exhibit, coming out of UTL and Harvard GSD’s grad students

Urban theory – attempt to critically clarify the basic concepts, categories, and interpretations that we use to think about and to influence urban questions.
Always already around, because we are always presupposing what cities and urbanization are.
CUT – engage with and clarify some of those dominant interpretations of urban processes/questions.
Basic question: how to understand urban life…whether we are scholars or practitioners (research and practice).
9:00 Today UT is in a paradoxical position
1) Disagreement w/in the field…about almost everything.
2) Field is marked strongly by legacies of last century. Certain assumptions presupposed: underlying spatial taxonomies that emerged when field emerged – urban/rural divide…urban as a particular type of space, that should be studied in line w/ specific principles and categories.

Epistemologically constitutive of though/action in relation to urban questions (of course I am already thinking about F and epistemes…what about other ‘disciplines’? pg 168 of OT…there is only one operative episteme in any particular culture and time).
11:00 UTL – crit investigate underlying assumptions about spatial organization that inform research/action on urban questions…do we need to modify these assumptions to deal with rapidly changing social, economic, environmental, & spatial conditions (see website). Reinventing categories and cartographies in relation to changing conditions…

12:20: Lab? Typically invested in empirical work, but UTL strives to generate new categories. Social sciences – in which dominant positivism marginalizes theory – need theory…

13:25 “There is obviously a dialectic between concrete research and abstract theorization”
What drives concrete research endeavors? A new cognitive map of urbanization practices.
UTL Research Agenda:
critically interrogate
1. legacies of urban theory (both canonical and subterranean)
2. metanarratives of contemporary urbanization (global urban discourses..Brenden Geason’s The Urban Condition.
3. Visualization techniques…cognitive maps of dominant traditions. Use visualization as tool for developing new theoretical tools for understanding.

17:50: urban as type of settlement space contrasted to nonurban outside…the idea is to move beyond that emphasis to look at relationship btwn agglomeration processes and operational landscapes. Include how what is ‘outside’ is becoming integrated, often with destructive consequences. (Burgess’s concentric cities to Friedman’s world cities networks to operational landscapes that include the outside). We need to expand spatial lens…includes cities/agglom and broader operational landscapes. Implosions/Explosions cover – tar sands in Alberta…not a city, but still an industrialized urban landscape. Still iconic, but no skyscrapers…

major global-urban discourses
global cities, creative cities, territorial competition, good governance, sustainability, citizenship…different versions of the proposition that cities are essential to fate of humans. Situating urban in global context in relation to problems. All connect up w/ meta-discourse around ‘urban age’ (50%…). 25:00 – hundres of examples: Koolhaas, urban age project, the endless city, castells, davis, UN’s world urbanization prospects, The Guardian’s map. All are built on urban/rural divide.

Global spatial-urban ideology: a doxic (taken for granted) imaginary/reference point for understanding and mapping the contemporary global urban question…needs to be explored. Moreover, the 50% state is more misleading than revealing – toss it! A world of cities = urban planet? Yes, we live in an increasingly urbanizing planet, but evidence about the number/ways people live in cities are an adequate way of explaining the nature of an urban planet.

The “urban age” notion is ideological – NOT FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS. None of these discourses, for Brenner’s understanding of ideology, are illusions. Instead, it is grounded in real conditions; instead expresses a popular need to find a cognitive map for understanding/influencing a rapidly changing world. We need to understand the conditions that underpin these particular understandings (he would never mention F but I will; how is this different than this notion of episteme?).

Unpack the content of these discourses for clues into the ongoing transformations.

Lefebvre (1976), “Reflections on the politics of space”: “space is not a scientific object removed from ideology and politics; it has always been political and strategic.” This is in SSW, translated by Elden and Brenner (170-171), and it seems like the original was 1970) Enders’s translation in 1976? Was something wrong with it?
“If space has an air of neutrality…”
“space is political and ideological…”

representations of space: UN, planners/designers….never neutral, always mediated by strategies. The goal is to make these agendas explicit and positionality.

Four steps: Genealogy, critique, alternatives, exhibition

1) Genealogy
w/ Schmid. History of attempts to measure world’s urban population, as technical exercise and epistemological exercise. First question – what is defined as urban? Begins after WWII (~Davis) with the ratio of population in cities vs. total population. 1955 and 1965 both, Davis saw 50% transition coming. Major concern of Davis: finding comparable data sets. Very well aware of theoretical issues that Brenner is interested in, but didn’t get bogged down because he wanted to create a global data set of urban populations: let’s come up with 2 urban population thresholds, 20,000 and 100,000.

Hoyt (1966) used Davis’s data/method to talk about larger regions. Berry (1961), world urban population, UN (1969), UNESCO’s urban age (1984). Epistemological identity among all these maps.

2) Critique
First axis: empirical. Continued use of Davis’s 1950s urban population threshold (20k and 100k). A methodological placeholder. Why are particular thresholds chosen? Implies a qualitative break between places on each side. Criteria of urban settlement are highly varied. Leads to bizarre data: Mexico is 74% or 67% urban in 2000, based on threshold (2500 or 15000). More extreme w China (24% to 73%) depending on which designation is used. India: urban if 5000 people, 75% of population is male in non-ag, 400 people per square mile. Especially sensitive to large populations…

Second axis: three theoretical points: status of the urban; what is theoretical definition of it? Need an argument about the specificity of these definitions. What is the status of the outside, the nonurban/rural? What is the status of the threshold itself?

Blind fields: settlement fetishism – all spaces of world are differentiated among distinct settlement types. Urban/rural – either/or, or along a continuum. Distributional model of urban transition – spatial change entails redistro of population among settlement types.

59:00 Batman image slapping 50% mouthpiece.

3) Alternatives (Escape routes)

More statistically adequate approaches…abandon threshold but continue to explore populations (critical demog).

Use geospatial data – pop size, distro, land use/cover – to define boundaries of urban condition.

Explode theoretical categories, invent new conceptual mappings of urban condition.

Planetary urbanization as capitalist uneven spatial development/spatial inequality. Not a concept saying that the whole world is becoming urbanized…not a specific mapping but a method. The core of which argues:
a. the urban is not a unit, but is a process of sociospatial transformation mediated through capitalist forms of industrialization
b. many urbanization processes; no single morphology of urban…can’t lock in a form/morphology…doesn’t make sense.
c. Supersede the urban/nonurban divide…process that transforms many different parts rather than deferring to this dichotomy that has outlived its useful life.

Concentrated vs Extended urbanization

Most urban theory has focused on former (concentration/agglom)…this is fundamental but Brenner adds an equivalent emphasis on extended urbanization. Contra Davis, Planetary Urbanization is a dialectic between concentrated and extended urbanization. Former: concentration/agglom; Latter: transformation of society, territory, environment in support of concentration/agglomeration. The hinterland is now internalized in the urbanization process. ~ tar sands image from cover of I/E: resource extraction to support urban growth elsewhere. New status of spaces that we thought of as rural. Examples: coal fields, resource extraction, water and transportation infrastructures, commodity flows, telegraph wires, undersea cables, down to infra and up to space.

The exhibition itself: operational landscapes is a speculative attempt to subject this theory of concentrated/extended urban urbanization to extreme stress: emptiness of nighttime lights map…looked at dark zones: sea, desert, amazon, etc…idea is to look and see if these areas have been integrated into the world urban fabric in last 20-30 years…looking at empty spaces, using framework of land use intensification, connectivity infrastructure, and socioenvironmental transformation mediated through dialectic btwn concentrated and extended urbanization.

The exhibition is a series of counter-visualizations, which fill up the empty spaces with instances of planetary urbanization.

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