Towards the Great Transformation: (1) Beyond ‘the urban revolution’

What kinds of investigation could serve an approach to social transformation that questions the project of planetary urbanisation, involving instead the rediscovery of sentient nature – informed by and informing a new materialism, and a related reconstruction of communalism, even a rediscovery of ‘the city’ (and ‘the country’, which is perhaps the rural and agrarian dimension of ‘civilisation’)?

The previous series of ‘endpieces’ to issues of CITY (‘Is it all coming together? Thoughts on urban studies and the present’) were primarily concerned with two dimensions: the crisis of the model of development and urbanisation which ‘the West’ has exported to the Rest; and the, to some extent, unacknowledged crisis of urban studies, more broadly of the socio-spatial sciences and humanities, and its failure to provide an adequate tracking of and response to the nature and impact of that model; a response with adequate pointers to policy and/or action.

In the former crisis the West and the Rest came together disastrously, both actually and symbolically, in ‘9/11’, in the form of the reverse reaction of an airborne attack coming from within ‘the Rest’ (not to be excused or to be denied as a reaction) to the ‘homeland’ of the model of development that had long been exported to/imposed on it. In the last ten years it has been becoming apparent that the West itself is a victim of that model and, indeed, the planet itself. In the second crisis, that of urban studies, the socio-spatial sciences and the humanities, despite much talk of interdisciplinarity, and their relationship to policy and/or action, they have failed to come together to any great extent.

Recently, there has in some circles been an influential return to Marxist political economy and historical materialism in and around an updated version of the critical theory elaborated by the Frankfurt School, and in partly overlapping circles of post-Marxist (the post-ness is too often taken-for granted) discussions, there has been talk of assemblage and of ‘new materialisms.’ This new series, in seeking to build a bridge between and beyond these two tendencies, Marxist and post-Marxist, returns to its characterisation of the model of development and urbanization, adding to its particular concerns the realities and notions of debt and ‘nature’. Turning to the relevant knowledges and practices, it continues with its series of experiments in ‘critical epic’, moving across spaces and times from the early civilisations to the present and beyond, making critical use of a wide variety of retellings and analysis, seeking to resurrect and redirect the much abused notion—much abused by mainstream urban studies, by positivism and by mechanistic forms of materialism—of an accessible science of society in the making, one that ‘brings people’, and now nature, ‘ (back) in’.

In moves towards an accessible science the series as a whole seeks to rescue and enhance ordinary appreciation of nature and of enthusiasm for the commons and related radical change, extra-disciplinary knowledge, from a sense of evident marginalisation and blockages (‘entrapments’) by the market and by academe. It draws particularly on Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, on Patrick Keiller’s semi-fictional documentary Robinson in Ruins, and recent work by the novelist and essayist Margaret Atwood  (see the full article here). Though it does not question the value of current critical, and some mainstream, studies in sociology, geography and the humanities in their coverage of aspects of the crisis, it does question their adequacy for understanding the full extent of the present possibly terminal stage of ‘the urban revolution’ and of the appropriate means for changing it. In so doing it seeks ultimately to direct attention away from a preoccupation with the negative experience of marketization and neoliberalism toward the positive prefigurative evidence for the possibility of a great transformation based on communalism.

It is thus particularly attentive to cultural as well as economic dimensions of ‘the crisis’, with an emphasis on the political dimension that is pre- rather than post-political.

What remains a constant is the crisis of the model of development and urbanisation which ‘the West’ exported to the Rest and in which it now, though reluctant to face the fact, finds itself entrapped, still haunted and incapacitated by spectres(1) able to assume, invoke but not deliver civilisation and ‘the city’, and accordingly surrendering to the notion that there is no end to ‘the urban revolution’ (which long ago, as will be argued in this series, became a counterrevolution), and that everything soon will be ‘urban’.

What follows is the first of a new series of explorations, exercises in critical epic, Towards a Great Transformation. Does the capitalist supposed path beyond the storm take us more catastrophically into the acute ‘developmental’ and touristic restlessness of planetary urbanization and ‘the urban revolution’? Or does an appropriate path beyond the storm require a rediscovery of sentient nature informed by and informing a new materialism, and a related reconstruction of communalism, even a rediscovery of ‘the city’ (and ‘the country’, which is perhaps the rural and agrarian dimension of ‘civilisation’)? What kinds of investigation could serve the latter approach?

Here is an initial account, to be expanded in subsequent episodes, of a particular semi-fictional investigation, in Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins, into a landscape at an early stage of the ongoing financial crisis. The semi-fictional investigator can be said to display an interest in materialisms old and new, the subject of the fourth section, with a particular emphasis here on the being-ness of nature as presented by Keiller and discussed by his co-investigator, the geographer Doreen Massey.

‘Robinson in Ruins’

Robinson in Ruins is the third in a series of films each presented by a fictional would-be scholar called Robinson to address a ‘problem’ by undertaking a journey, or journeys. It begins with captions alleging…that ‘the wandering it describes began on 22 January, 2008’… the film really did begin on 22 January, the day after the first of many stock market crashes that year…unlike the earlier London and Robinson in Space, both of which were realised as film productions, Robinson in Ruins(2) is one of several results of an inter-institutional research project.'(3)

It is a significant sign of the times that the Robinson ad/venture presented in the first two films could no longer continue as a film production because the financial backing for independent film-makers has been a victim of successive cuts. It is a hopeful sign that a new form has been found, the production of a dvd as part of an inter-institutional research project, thus taking this creative thinking/imaging more surely into a university system (though itself the victim of cuts and of ideological reshaping by government), and into the wider extra-university context (as well as the existing intra-university context) of ‘the media’, recently extended by ‘the new media’, and most recently in the form of an exhibition at Tate Britain into museum-based culture, and then back into the university and the media, old and new. It is a further gain that Keiller is now getting recognition as ‘the most original geographical and political thinker in Britain’ (4) and that he has been joined in this enterprise by the other figure for whom such a claim can be justly made, Doreen Massey.

Massey characterises the context and focus of Robinson in Ruins as follows. It was amongst the ‘ruins of the New Labour project that this research was conceived…By the time we came to carry out the capitalist world was in full-blown financial crisis. And it is with this, and the possibility that the immediate crisis might lead to a more profound political questioning, that the engagement with the landscape became most preoccupied.’

It is on the basis of a particularly profound political and intellectual questioning that Robinson/Keiller embark on a journey into a particular English landscape and into materialisms, old and new.


‘The camera stays on the butterflies working the teasel for four minutes and 15 seconds. There are many such passages in this film. The camera while filming does not travel. And often, with the cowslips, say, or the marsh marigolds (with ducks), the rose and the bee, the white foxglove, and the butterflies with the teasel, there is not much movement in the image either’ (Doreen Massey) (5)

The semi-fictional investigator can be said to display an interest in materialisms with a particular emphasis here on the being-ness and becoming-ness of nature, in particular flowers and butterflies, as presented by Keiller and discussed by his co-investigator, the geographer Doreen Massey.

Butterfly and teasels, from 'Robinson in Ruins' (2010).

Butterfly and teasels, from 'Robinson in Ruins' (2010).

There is not much movement in the image, Massey observes. ‘But’, she continues,

‘…these long takes are not about stasis either. Stuff is happening. The plants are getting on with their business. The bees and the butterflies are working them. The air is busy with activity.’

Cowslips, from 'Robinson in Ruins' (2010).

Cowslips, from 'Robinson in Ruins' (2010).

At this point Massey introduces a quotation from the film: ‘Robinson had once said he believed that, if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way into the future.’ (6) She continues:

‘Just before we meet the teasels and the butterflies we have learned of the longer historical story: ‘a 40-year study of plants, birds and, in particular, butterflies in Britain had given a firm indication of approaching mass-extinction.’ But the moments spent with the teasel tell of what it takes to survive, just to go on, from season to season. The work that has to be put in, for both the teasel and the butterflies.'(3-4) (7)

Massey goes on to consider the relationship of the temporal aspects of these spaces to her reconceptualisation of space: ‘The two dimensions [of space and time] are not counterposed but mutually constitutive.’(41 n.5). I shall return to this reconceptualisation later in the series but I begin to relate these scenes now, as presented by Keiller and discussed by Massey, to recent discussions of materialisms and to the relevance of Karl Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation.’

There is particularly useful coverage of this range of sources, ideas and linkages in Paul Dave’s ‘Robinson in Ruins: New materialism and the archaeological imagination’ Dave argues that it is through Robinson’s biophilia that contact can be established with the ‘new materialisms’: ‘an eclectic, philosophical, political and ethical set of arguments which are unified by a desire to decentre the human and expand our understanding of agency …’ While there is surely a sense of biophilia in Keiller’s film and he would go along with Massey’s emphasis on nature being at work rather than a mere object of aesthetic delight, it is not clear that Keiller/ Robinson is doing much more than playing (8) with the idea of nature’s agency. Robinson assumes that he has been summoned by natural forces to save humanity or the planet. There is a science fiction ambience here, one that is neatly reversed: instead of invading aliens threatening the planet, we have, so to speak, resident ‘aliens’ seeking to save the planet.

In arguing for theses new materialisms Dave quotes a good deal from Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s introduction to their edited collection New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (9) interpreting them as making an actual claim for nature’s agency . He states that there is’a monolithic, “massive materiality”, which they argue is increasingly pressing its claim on us.'(21) But it is not clear that they go that far. What is clear is that these newer materialisms are counterposed against two paradigms, one (strongly identified by Coole and Frost) consisting of ‘the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn’(2–3), and the other (strongly identified by Dave) as the essentially Marxist projects of historical materialism and of ‘critique and demystification’ (22). The latter calls for (and will receive in later episodes) extended discussion, for its relevance to Polanyi’s concluding sketch of the way beyond the marketised transformation that is his main concern in the book, one historic example of resistance to its development that Keiller draws out of the landscape under investigation ( a rising against enclosures in 1596, the subject of a study in the historical materialist tradition), and to Polanyi’s discussion of the ‘fictitious commodities’ of labour(10), land and money – all topics of major importance, of course, to the consideration of the continuing validity of Marxist materialism.

by Bob Catterall, Editor-in-Chief of CITY

See full article here – from CITY (2012) Vol 16. Issue 1-2.


  1. An earlier discussion that owes much to Derrida’s’hauntological’ work on spectres.
  2. I discussed his earlier two films in ‘Endreview: new spaces’ in CITY, 4.1, 2000, pp. 162–168
  3. Patrick Keiller, ‘Introduction’, p.1, in a booklet accompanying the BFI dvd of Robinson in Ruins.
  4. Owen Hatherley, ‘How Patrick Keiller is mapping the 21st-century landscape’, The Guardian, 30 March. 2012. The exhibition, Patrick Keiller: The Robinson Institute is at the Tate Britain, 27 March–14 October, 2012.
  5. Doreen Massey, ‘Landscape/space/politics: an essay’.
  6. Keiller used a similar sentence in his film London (1994): ‘Robinson believed that, if he looked at it hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.’- italics added. (I intend to take this up on another occasion.) Keiller’s discussion is in an interview in Time Out,, about an exhibition, ‘The City of the Future, ‘related to his film London (1994). My thanks to him for referring me to this interview (email 25 March, 2012). See also Keiller’s article ‘The City of the Future’ in CITY 7.3 (2003), pp. 376–386.
  7. Colleague Melissa Wilson comments: ‘ A very significant statement, highlighting the productive functioning of nature, not as ‘nice scenery’, but as the basis of our survival.’
  8. I suggest in the above review of the earlier films that Keiller’s viewpoint is ‘simultaneously ironic and post-ironic .’ This follows a comment by Steve Bell: ‘There was a large amount of ludicrous posturing on the left during the seventies, and much of it was pre-post-ironic.’ (p.164).
  9. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (eds.) New materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  10. We featured Elvin Wyly’s photograph, from the Vancouver OWS demonstration of 19 October 2011, of a child carrying a clearly self-made poster, ‘We are not commodities’ on the cover of CITY 15.5 including reference to it, Polanyi’s discussion of this fictitious commodity, and the insufficiently critical consideration of it in Working Capital: Life and Labour in Contemporary London, in the endpiece to that issue (pp. 610–612).

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