CITY had two panels at this year’s AAG 2017 in Boston:
CITY Panel 1:What Theories Do We Need for a Revitalized Urban Praxis? Thursday 6th April. This panel brought scholar-activists with different disciplinary perspectives together to discuss the roles that theory plays in constructing an urban praxis, both by taking a look at some analyses published in CITY and critically reflecting on our own work as scholar-activists. Panelists: Mark Davidson (Clark) and Sharon Meagher (Widener).
Mark and Sharon opened the panel with some theses/questions for the audience to then discuss. Their aim was to begin with some brief and provocative comments that allowed us to engage in a discussion about the key questions:
- Does the result of the US election ‘change everything’?
- How must we describe and theorise this and act now?
CITY:1996-2017 : How can we build our capacity for response and struggle. CITY journal has long been at the center of debates about how best to use social theory to transform our cities for the better. The present moment demands a reconfirming of this commitment, reflection, and a renewed dialogue about how we move forward.
Mark noted that Richard Rorty made comments in 1998 that predicted the election of a populist “strong man” like Trump back in 1998, and Mike Davis made a similar prediction. Sharon noted that one of the on-going debates in CITY has been on the need to think the urban and the rural together, and the failure to do so in part explains Trump’s election win.
Mark then raised the following questions (with some additional remarks):
1) Following Rorty, what is a subject? He argued that we need to theorize answers to this question if we are to know how to act politically.
2) Do we need to confront the concept of community and what is meant by membership?
3) How does critical scholarship respond to identifiable needs? Analytical concepts will not always be helpful in thinking through political problems, and we live in an age where we must prioritize the political.
4) How might we think about the ideological premises of our scholarship?
5) Where is critical scholarship on the left-right spectrum? If we fail to offer real alternatives, then left-appearing theory might in fact be conservative, in that it supports the status quo.
6) Can we go beyond resistance to think about future and opportunity?
7) How do we understand emerging politics of the academy? What does a “successful” academic look like? Is there sufficient room/support for scholar/activists in the academy?
8) do we need to return to greater analysis of class?
Sharon then presented a couple of theses:
THESIS 1 We need art and arts practices (always, but especially now) to both illuminate our theories and our practices. I argued that this is a thread in CITY; although we publish primarily articles, there are many visual images and we also interview artists and many authors frequently reference literary and visual works of art to make their points. I quoted from Debbie’s interview with Andrea Gibbons on our website to both provide an example and also to support the thesis, as Gibbons points out that scholarly theory and art captures different experiences: ” I think exploring how we understand reality through reading fiction really helps you understand things that you’ ve never experienced. I think for academics that’ s really important. Particularly given the way that academia is set up to really privilege certain kinds of experience and background. So I think to use stories as windows into experience, I like that idea. I’ ve found – and this is speaking very generally of course – that many people in academia don’ t always realise how removed their way of thinking, their theory is from practice.”
Corollary 1: Arts help people find voices and connect everyday experiences to things and issues bigger than themselves
Corollary 2: Creating things together connects people in real ways; builds bridges over boundaries [here is discussed exampled from my work in Chester, PA in collaboration with artists]
THESIS 2 We need theories that inform practices on different scales and in different contexts, so no one theory will do. Sharon said she wasn’t going to endorse particular theories, as she thought CITY can and should draw on multiple theoretical frameworks. But she offered some things to think about:
In the streets, engaging in practice, the theories of improvisation and DIY might be most useful: [theories of improvisation draw on arts and arts metaphors, jazz, improv theater—and I think that these theories would be more robust if we thought that through those connections even more]
To think about our work as scholar-activists: in CITY: on-going dialogue on the following questions: how do we account for the positionality and role of the urban theorist? And how do we account for the positionality of urban activist (including the times when the urban activist and the urban theorist are the same person?). debate by Alex Schafran and Paul Madden; picked up by Jean-Paul Addie, or as I discussed in Politics of Urban Knowledge (CITY 2015)
Robust, critical, and reflective concepts of PRAXIS Streetwalking (again, arts—Gibbons’ point) and urban epistemology as a weed (referenced many debates in CITY on these issues)
For both in the streets and scholar-activists: renewed emphasis on materiality, on bodily embeddedness.
To continue to offer critique of oppressive SYSTEMS that operate above and influence local context and also analysis of how different types of interventions and different scales might affect, re-enforce, skirt, or de-rail oppressive systems.
The importance of illuminating everyday struggles, as referred to in Debbie Humphry’s interview in CITY with Andrea Gibbons,
“Debbie: The two worlds of the structural and the everyday voices? Andrea: Yeah. Exactly. And how people understand their own reality. And how that’ s shaped, and how that shapes bigger contexts. Because I think having been engaged in struggle for so long I always felt that when you’ re fighting you keep hitting these walls. Power’ s a very real thing when you’ re engaged in a struggle, a campaign. So for me theory is most exciting when it illuminates those walls, and shows you ways to think about them and how to get over them, how to smash them or break them”
To utilize theory to help us imagine radical alternatives(debates about scale of that theory, need for “ universal theory or framework” vs. developing through comparative analysis of various specific contexts vision for a just city, but that is a vision developed in dialogue with others and tested against experience.
THESIS 3: We need to think together the rural and the urban—and there’ s more than one rural-urban divide (but also more than one way that we can find connection) In this context, Sharon referenced the writings of Bob Catterall and others and then discussed the US Film (2017)GET OUT and an SNL sketch featuring Tom Hanks called Black Jeopardy.
Sharon argued that there are several urban/rural divides that we must think to bridge: elite urban vs. poor rural; Gentried rural vs urban; Rural poor vs. urban “ elites”; Urban white intellectual elites (academics) vs. urban poor (often people of color)
The discussion that followed really covered all this terrain. There was a great deal of discussion about scholar-activism as well as people’s takes on various debates (especially in CITY, thanks to great audience participation from Antonis Vradis, Andrea Gibbon, and David Simon).
CITY Panel II: Capitalisation and Materiality: post-colonial thought and urban-rural revolts
Thursday 6th April. CITYs second panel discussed how to fight back and organise toward a Revitalized Urban Praxis.
The panel brought scholars-activists together to discuss the ways in which we can organise ourselves politically in the eye of the storm. Chaired by Antonis Vradis (Loughborough), panelists David Simon (Royal Holloway). Andrea Gibbons (Salford) and Nasser Abourahme (Columbia).
The session took the form of a panel discussion rather than presentation of research results. Each panellist provided a distinct set of reflections on the theme and provocation to debate drawing on their professional transdisciplinary engagements as scholar-activists or facilitators of multi-stakeholder co-creation/co-production research programmes. These highlighted lessons and opportunities as well as shortc
omings and challenges based on asymmetrical power relations in terms of gender, ethnicity, class and – especially in the current international context – religion and nationality.
Thanks to Sharon Meagher, Andrea Gibbbons, Antonis Vradis, David Simon, for their contribution to this webpost.