The City

“Anybody can be good in the country” – Lord Henry in A picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

What, if anything, does this tell us about living in the city?

Introduction: constructing the moral landscape

Oscar Wilde’s facetious comment that “anybody can be good in the country” is suggestive of the powerful and yet problematic distinction often drawn between the urban and the rural.   It references a putatively uncomplicated and cohesive morality that is sometimes perceived as regulating village life.   In contrast to this the city is seen as a site defined by anonymity and alienation.   It is often understood as an arena where numerous fundamentally different moral codes intersect, leaving a disruptive (and in the case of Dorian Gray, seductive) uncertainty.  This perceived duality will initially be set up in this article by looking at the distinction made by Durkheim between traditional and modern industrial societies (Durkheim 1893).

The diversification of accepted moralities in urban centres opens up questions and even potential conflict concerning etiquette, diet, language, the utilisation of space and numerous other mundane details of everyday life.   These mundane details form part of a life-world both for individuals and whole communities.   This life-world is constantly forced to adapt in order to accommodate the fluid realities of life in the city.   This article will explore the methods through which the city, as an entity, is able to digest what are potentially opposing ways of being and allow them to coexist.  Different theoretical constructions of this urban entity have very different implications as to how these processes of cohabitation and negotiation are seen to occur.   The trajectory of the article will move from critiques of fixed or idealistic constructions of the city towards a dynamic understanding which fits the emergent and fluid properties of urban social processes.

Initially holistic and unifying conceptions of urban society will be explored.   Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism and the tenets of modernist architecture will be discussed as processes which attempt to tie together diverse moral communities through rationalism and universal ethics.   However, these totalistic and top down constructions of unity will be shown to have repercussions which exclude those who transgress from the cosmopolitan norm.   This cosmopolitanism will be shown to privilege pre-existing power structures while flattening the dynamic reality of urban societies (Harvey 2000).

In contrast to those scholars who have searched for unifying ethics, others have looked instead at difference and how this can be mapped.   The “radical particularism” of Waltzer is an example of this approach.   Kant’s work on Geography is shown to demonstrate the dangers of simply promoting a spatial awareness of difference while ignoring temporal and experiential dimensions.   The understanding which arises out of Kant’s Geographies will be seen as simplifying a complex reality.   His spatial understanding of diversity works to fix and create essentialist ideas of difference which are reinforced by people’s daily experience.   This leads to prejudice and can ultimately pit different communities against each other (Harvey 2000).

This article will argue for a move towards a more dynamic and syncretic picture of the way moral communities interact in the urban environment.    An example of this approach is found in Certeau’s “Practices of Everyday life” (Certeau 1984).   Various authors are also shown to take inspiration from Turners’ ideas of liminality to show the constantly emergent properties of different communities and the fluid ways in which they interact (Thomassen 2009).   This will lead to the idea of a decentred “vernacular cosmopolitanism” similar to that put forward by Bhabha (Keller 2004:38).    Ultimately a deconstruction of the very concepts of a rural urban divide and hermeneutically sealed moral communities show that these are not fixed and discrete entities but part of fluid, wider networks of interconnection (Latour 2005).

Establishing a Rural Urban Divide: traditional vs modern

Durkheim in his Division of Labour in Society (1893) was interested in how societies held together.   In studying social cohesion he described two categories of society.  He saw what he understood as “traditional societies” as being held together through “mechanical solidarity”.   This assumed that the entire society was unified by a single, undifferentiated collective consciousness.   As a result all members of the community shared and were regulated by the same morality and beliefs.   On the other hand he characterised modern industrial societies as held together by “organic solidarity”.   Organic solidarity is created by the division of labour, brought about as a necessity by increases in the density and size of population.   As different groups take on different roles in society, ideas of morality, identity and belief begin to diverge.   Durkheim saw all these divergent moralities as different components of a single organic system, allowing social cohesion to maintain itself (Durkheim 1893).   Durkheim’s characterisation of a transition from traditional to modern can be read also as a transition from rural to urban.

This specialisation and diversification, while it provided opportunities, also represented a threat to social order.    If the division of labour is carried to its extreme then individuals get isolated in their own sphere of operation.   Durkheim called this lack of integration into the social group ‘egoism’.   Egoism leads to a deficit of moral regulation described as ‘anomie’.

As moral order declines, “a thirst arises for novelties, unfamiliar pleasures, nameless sensations, all of which lose their savour once known”   He maintains that “all these new sensations in their infinite quantity cannot form a solid foundation for happiness to support one in days of trial” (Durkheim 1897: 256)   It is this subversion of the mainstream moral order and the self-destructive, alienating repercussions which are explored by Oscar Wilde in A Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde 1890).   Durkheim discusses this phenomenon in his treatise on suicide.   He shows that as people stop living in small, cohesive family networks there is a loss of integration and therefore of moral regulation (Durkheim 1897).

Durkheim’s ideas rested on the concept of a society where the individual’s sense of morality was imposed by the cultural whole.   This ultimately operated because he understood the whole of society to be a cohesive structure which worked for its own ends.   In post-colonial and post-modern anthropology this synchronic and holistic view of society is seen as problematic.   It silences the voices of those who have been marginalised, leaves little room for individual agency and treats pre-existing dynamics of power as privileged and enduring (Edles 2009: 101).    However theorists have continued to grapple with the difficulties of tying the world-views of diverse moral communities together with various conceptions of a unifying ethic or with regulatory infrastructure and planning.

Unifying Ethics: the global city

The word cosmopolitan is derived from the Greek words for world (cosmos) and city (polis) (Leichtman 2012).   The conjunction of these concepts from the outset highlights the tension between heteromorphic elements, both local and global, that are inherent in urban culture.   Different ideas and moral codes are imported from geographically and culturally diverse sources as well as organically generated in the milieu of city life.      In modern social theory the concept of cosmopolitanism has been used as a tool to show how these different moral codes are able to exist side by side.   A key element of the cosmopolitan subject in social theory is an “openness to foreign others and cultures”, allowing diverse and yet unified societies to exist (Saito 2011).

Nussbaum suggests a version of cosmopolitanism which seeks to “put right before country and universal reason before the symbols of national belonging” (Leichtman 2012).     Nussbaum references zeno‘s dream of a “well ordered and philosophical community”, where people are not “divided from one another by local schemes of justice” (Harvey 2000).   This conception of cosmopolitanism is inspired by Kant’s Metaphysics which suggested that “the people of the earth have entered in varying degrees into a universal community…where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere” (Harvey 2000).   This “universal community” is often understood to be most advanced in urban and multicultural societies.    The EU and the proliferation of international law could be seen as a full realisation of this utopian vision of post-industrial society (Harvey 2000).

This vision can also be seen in the modernist urban planning of Le Corbusier.   His utopian project attempted “the erasure of social difference and creation of equality in the rational city of the future” (Wardsource 2002).  Le Corbusier’s philosophy can be seen as exemplified in the construction of Chandigarh.   Chandigarh was a planned city built to serve as the capital of the Punjab after partition.   It was commissioned by Nehru as a symbol of rationalism and modernity in the newly independent India.       The city was laid out in the “international style” with housing allocated on the basis of a lottery to reduce clustering of caste communities (Shaw 2009).   This was designed to change traditional social structures and generate a new egalitarian ethos.  However, the realities of Indian society have proved a stark challenge to this idea of a rational and egalitarian future.   Migration to Chandigarh has dramatically exceeded the planned population and while the centre of the city is regulated, it is surrounded and constantly encroached by diverse and fluid slum communities, marked by stark social and economic disparity (Shaw 2009).   As Certeau (1984), in a different context, describes “beneath the discourses that idealise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate, without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer”.  Similarly Kandinsky talks of “a city built according to all the rules of architecture and then suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculation” (quoted in Certeau 1984).

Harvey criticises Nussbaum’s Cosmopolitanism and Modernism in general for failing to grapple with this fundamental diversity and dynamism.   On the one hand it produces a simple and concrete moral code for living which can be applied to all of humanity.    However, simultaneously, marginalised groups must conform or be considered morally defective. In a situation where “normative ideals get inserted as a principle of political action”, those who do not fit are “thought indolent, smelly, or just plain ugly” (Harvey 2000).   This is ably illustrated by the ethnographic film, Dark Days, which documents the lives of homeless people in New York who have chosen to live in the tunnels underneath the city.   Those who tell their stories emphasise the dangers of living in this environment.   At the same time they stress that it affords them protection from police who would move them on, strangers who might attack them on the streets and landlords who demand money.   While they are in many ways constrained and excluded, they are able to maintain a sense of freedom that is unavailable within the prescriptive structure of the city above ground (Singer 2000).

The potentially tyrannical aspect of this unified vision of the city is also discussed by Certeau who describes the view of New York from the top of the world trade centre.   He expresses the voyeuristic sense of being lifted out of the phenomenological, immersive experience of being at street level and looking out over the static visual map of the landscape.   He sees this totalistic understanding of the city as preventing people from generating their own meaning through the “practices of everyday life” (Certeau 1984:102).

Mapping Diversity: a focus on difference

This repressive conception of the city is countered by some theorists by turning it on its head.   Rather than looking for unifying themes, they have moved to focus on fundamental difference and how it is arranged spatially.   An example of this is the work of Waltzer, who espouses “radical particularism” and the promotion of “local justice”.   Waltzer argues that “for each cultural group there is some theory of justice that captures its ethical institutions and moral universals” (quoted in Harvey 2000).

Superficially this appears to show complexity, with radically different social orders coexisting side by side.    However, this privileging of geographical knowledge achieves what Harvey considers is simply a static map of anomalies and curiosities.  This map fails to tackle the complex, experiential ways in which discrete communities relate to each other.  Effectively it advocates “a fetishistic politics that would try to freeze existing geographical structures of places and norms forever”.   This, according to Harvey, allows “geographical racisms and ethnic prejudices” to proliferate (Harvey 2000).

In order to demonstrate this he uses the example of Kant’s teachings on geographical knowledge.   These writings can be seen as drastically undermining the universal ethics put forward in Kant’s own metaphysics.   They are described by Droit as a “hodgepodge of heterogeneous remark, of knowledges without system, of disconnected curiosities” and contain a litany of prejudicial assumptions (quoted in Harvey 2000).

The spatial ordering of people reinforces these prejudicial assumptions through what Deshpande calls “the sedimented banalities of neighbourliness” (quoted in Harvey 2000).   Stevens for example, in a study of the twittersphere shows a strong link between social and geographical distance.  People interact socially, even on virtual networks, largely with those geographically closest to them (Stephens 2014a).   The way that prejudice becomes effectively embedded in socio-spatial realities is eloquently shown in Stephens’ Hate Map, which presents geotagged racial slurs on twitter (Stephens 2014b).   This is particularly relevant in the urban environment where there is lots of complexity and diversity, all represented in a relatively small space.   Harvey uses the example of white supremacists to show that synchronic mapping of community can pit different groups against each other, often in ways which lead to unrest and communal violence (Harvey 2000).

The Exploding City: the dialectical and emergent

Harvey rejects the idea that either a metaphysical unity or any sort of static geography can generate a proper understanding of urban environments. Instead he suggests that the “material circumstances of a lived geography” should be the object of study (Harvey 2000).   This is echoed by Certeau who suggests that geographic systems “transform action into legibility but in doing so causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten” (Certeau 1984: 104).   In order to understand the multiple “ways of being in the world” it is important to reintroduce the dimensions of time and experience into what Kant has presented as static and dead spaces (in geographies) or not spaces at all (In his metaphysics) (Harvey 2000).   Certeau draws inspiration from Bakhtin in representing walking and other performative practices in urban life as heteroglossic speech acts (Highmore 2006: 123).   This paints the city as being constantly and dynamically recreated in an ongoing dialectical process.   Certeau characterises this as “a universe which is constantly exploding”.     The infrastructure of a planned city like Chandigarh becomes grammar and syntax while the dynamic fabric of everyday life moves through it.   These heteroglossic processes are constrained by the physical structure of the city but still leak through wherever there are cracks or ambiguity (Certeau 1984: 94).

Anthropologists have also taken inspiration from the work of Victor Turner on liminality to explore dialectical processes through which moral orders are constructed.    Ring makes the argument that liminality is not, as Turner describes, a brief cathartic process which brings stability in its wake.   It is the product of prolonged, effortful labour.   What is often viewed as simply the “tedious drudgery of everyday routine” is in fact the site of cultural and moral innovation and creativity (Ring 2006:179).   Appadurai suggests that what he calls “locality” is transient “unless hard and regular work is undertaken to produce and maintain its materiality.     This “locality” is understood as a “structure of feeling” and not simply a “material reality” (Appadurai 1995).

This is supported by Thomassen (2009) who argues that liminality can be extended from brief instances into periods such as political or social revolutions.   He takes this a step further and speculates that modernity could be seen as a permanent form of liminality.   This idea of a post-industrial society which is constantly reproducing itself from the bottom up is a theme in the work of Rem Koolhas in Lagos.   Koolhas created a multimedia work, Lagos Wide & Close – An Interactive Journey into an Exploding City, attempting to present the phenomenological reality of the urban environment.   Koolhas describes a city where the neglected, often collapsing infrastructure merely provides a skeletal order.   He shows the original planning reimagined through complex practices of everyday life (Koolhas 2004). He views the ordering principle as “local improvisation and social routines” (Lewis 2009).  Rather than seeing the city as maintaining a state of crisis Koolhas paints a picture of dynamic creativity.   As an example of this, Koolhas describes a motorway intersection which at first glance appears to be a chaotic rubbish dump; literally and metaphorically the end of the road.   On closer inspection he finds it to be an incredibly organised recycling centre full of diverse activity and enterprise.   He expresses amazement that such an “apparently chaotic city could organise such incredibly efficient transformations of garbage in such a highly structured way”.

What is documented in Lagos, Wide and Close is a hugely vibrant, entrepreneurial society which is not constricted by power relations or repressive structural elements.   While Koolhas is criticised for not documenting the power structures that do exist in Lagos, his selective lens allows the viewer to see the dialectical heteroglossia which thrive in the city (Lewis 2009) (Koolhas 2004).    In the words of Thomassen (2009) “during liminal periods, characterised by a wholesale collapse of order and a loss of background structure, agency is pushed to the front and reorientations in modes of conduct and thought are produced”.   This state of liminality allows a dynamic and vibrant patchwork of coexisting moralities in one densely populated space.

Networks of Connectedness: a situated phenomenon

A sense of anonymity and the level of intimacy which individuals are compelled to accept with strangers creates potential for conflict and transgressive behaviours.   Barnett, for example, describes a high caste Indian man coming into contact with a Dalit due to seating arrangements at a cinema.   This, he suggests, would not have occurred in a rural context where there is a general understanding as to how to avoid these situations (Eames 1977: 202).   This “situated multiplicity” is what Massey would term “throwntogetherness”.   The “social reflex” which allows “unconscious negotiation of anonymous others, plural objects, assembled variety, emergent developments and multiple time spaces”, is not something which should be taken for granted (Amin 2008).   Appadurai argues that the phemenological worlds of both individuals and communities are “fragile and must be maintained carefully against all kinds of odds” in urban contexts.

Ring, for example, documents the cohabitation of extremely diverse families in a Karachi apartment block.   Karachi being a city marred by ethnic violence, risks presented by intimacy with neighbours are beyond that of simply losing face.   Ring sees the site of negotiation and innovation, through which peace is actively manufactured, as that of female domesticity.   Women in the building will have usually moved from a homogenous rural settlement where they will have cohabited with their own kin.   Thus the reality of urban life presents a practical and psychological challenge to their moral identity.  Not only must they change their practices, for example adopting more modest dress or speaking in Urdu (the common language), but they must adapt their ideas as to who can become kin and who represents a stranger.   Accordingly concepts of public and private space are also refashioned.   Ring documents an informal system of generalised reciprocity where food, gossip, sugar, information and numerous other commodities are passed between households.   The delay in reciprocating favours creates a tension.   This does not only make the tension which is a reality of cohabitation legible, but also ties diverse families together.   In the dynamic reality of the apartment block Ring identifies what could be understood as a sort of decentred cosmopolitanism- a unity manufactured through the interaction of diverse elements through dialectical processes (Ring 2006).

Quayson takes inspiration from Certeau in looking at how crowded pavements in Accra are governed by improvisation.  This dynamism causes the “transformation of discourse ecologies” as elements from very different cultural spheres are forced together in dynamic processes.   He attempts to read the street as a text, looking primarily at advertising billboards but also the “galaxy” of other “cultural inscriptions” in Accra.   He shows how signs in public space are mediated by “evanescent local traditions which coalesce into increasingly syncretic wholes”.   At the same time however, they draw imagery and ideas from national and transnational arenas with their “attendant imagescapes”.   This hints at the way in which internal and external boundaries are rendered porous by flows of ideas and identity.    Quayson shows how some signs appeal to their audience (and their audience responds) as Accra locals, Ghanaians, Black Africans or global citizens according to context (Quayson 2010).   This can be read as an illustration of the vernacular cosmopolitanism put forward by Homi Bhabha, which is not prescribed “by old boundaries and entrenched positions but allows transgression”.   This cosmopolitanism can be seen as a complex of discursive practices which result in a “multidimensional swirl of cultural ideas” and ultimately “resists any binary understanding” (Keller 2004:38).

This dynamic picture of flows, both on the local and the global scale problematises the binaries of the rural and urban as home to radically different moral worlds.   It also exposes the idea of hermeneutically bounded moral communities which might exist side by side as imaginary entities.  Instead a fluid relationship emerges where different communities, just as urban and rural arenas, can be seen as part of historically situated networks of “connectedness” (Latour 2005: 187).   By creating empirical accounts of the nodes of attachment in these networks a “science of living together” can be said to emerge. This science moves away from preconceived categories and towards the empirical description of the “multiplex connections that link actions and identities across borders” (Saito 2011).   Ultimately this aims to represent the dynamics of urban communities as they are rather than relying on theoretical constructions which are preconceived, inflexible or ideological.


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