What Is the Urban?

Registers of a World Interior

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The urban, long a popular topic of inquiry, has become an unavoidable condition for contemporary life. For many disciplines, it has become a primary locus of research, giving birth to families of subdisciplines bearing its name. Disciplines as varied as sociology, anthropology, geography, literature, art, design, economics, history and politics increasingly find themselves in contact with and shaped by the urban. And as more and more spaces of the world are urbanized, the ubiquity of this category as a site of scholarly research could be said to rest on the urgency we face in accommodating ourselves to its contradictions, imposed forms of violence, and the environmental fallout it has unleashed. From all scales, we encounter the urban, too: popularized notions like the anthropocene shed light on this category just as much as the problem of uneven development that characterizes our everyday experiences in its spaces. Yet for as much as it has opened itself to scholarly research, there is oddly scant reflection on the category itself. Despite its irrefutable complexity, its use is often irrefutably reductive: it appears as a background condition, as much for life itself as for the many discourses that attempt to describe it. Always at the disposal of myriad forms of knowledge, it is the unquestioned specification for the definition of other problems. The urban, it seems, is a given.

This symposium opens with a simple yet perplexing question: what is the urban? It brings together a range of internationally renowned scholars in an effort less to provide answers to this question than to frame a problem that has yet to be fully constituted. What language do we need to speak about the urban? What spaces and politics does it produce? Does the urban have a history of its own? An ontological specificity? If so, what lies outside of its domain? Can we speak of the modern ‘rural’—the deterritorialized pastoral spaces of agrarian life, reterritorialized as machines of resource production and circulation—as in fact already urbanized? How does a site like Iowa allow us to understand and reimagine the ontological contours of the urban? As satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies pierce ever deeper into the natural world, translating its remoteness into maps of resource concessions to be distributed as future commodities, can we even say that ‘nature’ itself has, to some degree, been urbanized?

Indeed, despite possible appearances, one must also be cautious not to reduce the urban to a totality—a spatiality without an outside, immune to agency, change or strategic repurposing toward other ends. Thus, just as much as the symposium is a provocation to speculate on what the urban is, it will also be a solicitation to think through what it is not. What constitutes non- or extra-urban spaces and practices? What geographies, technologies, architectures or social practices resist their capture in ongoing processes of urbanization? What new spatial configurations have appeared that complicate what could otherwise be called ‘urban’? Does urbanization, now planetary in scale, harbor the mechanics to cancel itself out? While cautious of any romance toward a return to more innocent, pastoral times or a myopic turn toward localist imaginaries, how instead can globalized urban topographies and topologies be repurposed toward more positive, post-urban forms? How can one avoid the reformist trap that nearly all ‘urbanisms’ have fallen victim to, whose strategies invariably reproduce the urban unchecked under the twin guises of benevolence and novelty? Indeed, by simply addressing the urban as a problem in and of itself, the symposium aims to open radically new apertures toward a world increasingly viewed through its endlessly urbanized space.

Emerging philosophical, theoretical and conceptual apparatuses may be necessary to repose the urban outside of its traditional spatial and ontological frameworks. For instance, considering recent work in the humanities, what happens when we consider the urban to be a political ecology in its own right—a dense, complex, relational entanglement of human and non-human natures, embodied energies and materialities? What political forms and technologies does its spatial organization produce? Likewise, through juridico-political histories, the urban may begin to appear as a spatio-political order on par with a historical figure like territory, raising genealogical questions as to its emergence and formation. Can discourses on circulation, logistics and network theory be marshaled to confront the trans-scalar qualities that we observe in a spatial order visible at once at the planetary and the bodily scales? What kind of spatial theories can reconcile the geopolitical with the biopolitical?

In this regard, Peter Sloterdijk’s recent provocations around the notion of ‘world interior’ may shed crucial light on the question of the urban. Building on Walter Benjamin’s seminal work on the Paris Arcades, the ‘world interior’ operates as a metaphor to describe the end result of a long history of globalization, whose consistency is characterized by an overarching aversion to risk developed over centuries of plunderous oceanic crossing. ‘Interiorization’ for him stands as a tendency whose effect today is marked by sprawling insurance policies, unchecked security measures and a techno-media power structure whose effort to totally annihilate risk comes through endless structures and technologies of enclosure. The space of the world interior, akin to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851), is an interior so vast as to produce its own local weather conditions; an architecture so large as to make invisible its limits, permitting the fantasy that there is no outside; an object whose enclosures ensure not only absolute security to those inhabiting its striated interior, but that the apartheid inscribed onto the world without will remain beyond its horizon of immunized comfort. Moving from paradigm to ontology, how can such a notion of a ‘world-interior’ be useful for unfolding relations between the material, legal, social, political, architectural and phenomenological conditions of the urban today? How can it help to describe new socio-spatial ontologies of this category that transgress the familiar urban/rural, center/periphery, and even global south/north divides? What other emerging concepts and motifs can help capture the elusive yet omnipresent condition of the urban?

 

This event is made possible by a generous grant from the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH) and by the Department of Architecture at Iowa State University. Additional support is provided by the English, Anthropology, Community and Regional Planning and History departments at Iowa State University, Datum student journal of architecture, the Committee on Lectures (funded by Student Government), and the Climate Science Program, Geological & Atmospheric Sciences, and Global Resource Systems Programs at Iowa State University.

Iowa State University

Department of Architecture

April 4-5, 2016