On the (Post)Modern/Postfordist City

Our license to investigate these areas as aspects of the New Times (which see) project lies in the views of people like Mulgan and Campbell (in Hall and Jacques (1989)), although the ideas are not really unique to those sources. Cities take on a new shape, argues Mulgan, organized around the flow of information which is so important to the changes in the economy traced by the New Times project. A linked development lies in the globalisation of service industries which permits large companies to relocate their headquarters and their workforces in ways which differ from the old clusters of manufacturing industry surrounded by workers’ housing. A need to attract highly-skilled and valuable labour is also a factor in location – those people want to live somewhere that is interesting and ‘convivial’ (to use a favourite lefty term), or that offers an interesting ‘milieu’ (to use another one), a combination of good housing and recreational facilities like watersides, cinemas, schools, universities, specialist stores (so you can get nice, fresh Lollo Rossa to go in your ciabatta), and nice safe neighbourhoods and environments with well-planned roads and districts. 

Indeed, it soon becomes clear that this sort of ‘gentrification’ or ‘exoticisation’ of the city has become the object of planning policy, designed to offer some cultural values to the city – thus local authorities deliberately try to attract sites such as specialist museums, restaurants, galleries, focal-point waterside redevelopments, or even university departments to particular areas, or deliberately encourage ‘themes’ such as exotic ethnic diversity as in ‘Chinatowns’ or restored ‘old quarters’ like the Rocks in Sydney. Of course, any marxists among you may already have your antennae waving at this proposal, seeing it as a way to make cities nice and congenial for the gentry (the middle classes) but wondering what happens to the hoi polloi(the proletariat or the working classes or the ‘socially excluded’) – even Mulgan has his worries here and wants to advocate some remedial action for them to reclaim the cities too, instead of being banished to the suburbs to watch TV all night while the bourgeois frolic in their safe spaces. Unfortunately, his remedial action remains at the level of ‘half-formed vision’ and ‘promises’, programmes to be fleshed out. 

In fact this sort of approach is but the latest in attempts to plan cities, of course, and, as Donald argues (in Bocock and Thompson 1992), the differences partly reflect the shifting metaphors used to pin down the symbolic meaning of cities and the societies that spawn them. Cities, especially capital or other major cities have long had this symbolic role and have similarly long been read for their symbolic meanings – read, indeed as ‘texts’. Thus to take some examples nicely discussed and illustrated in Donald: 

1. Engels’ account of life among the poor in Manchester probes into hidden areas of the city, the slum neighbourhoods and the foul backwaters and ‘courts’, and describes them as unspeakably awful and degraded, with piles of effluent and sewage in the streets, chronic overcrowding, and dreadful dwellings. In his hands, Manchester becomes a living symbol of the social divisions produced by aggressive industrial capitalism - this appalling squalor is associated with high rents and, above all, a deep indifference to the fate of the poor who are simply kept out of sight and left to cope as best they can (although to be fair, liberal reformers were also already on the case, including one whose name is well-known locally – Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth). The tradition continued with later works like Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, I suppose, a tale of squalor and degradation among the industrial northern working class, designed to alarm and rouse guilt in the bourgeoisie, or the early sociological works on ‘slums’ in Manchester or Liverpool.
2. Donald also refers to Marx’s remarks on the re-designing of Paris by the architect Haussmann, sponsored by Louis Napoleon (not the great Napoleon but his great-nephew). This work involved opening up the city to provide the series of connecting grand boulevards and open spaces we know today, and was done partly to illustrate Napoleon’s hopes of a new grand imperial phase for France, and partly to represent Paris as the leading modernist city (these apparent contradictions were typical of Napoleon III as Marx tells us). However, there was also a strategic purpose in that the wide boulevards permitted the rapid movement of troops and the deployment of artillery and cavalry, should the need arise, to quash any worker uprisings. We have here a way of reading cities as texts and also as the embodiments or traces of power, to which we shall return. 
3. Traces of these symbolic meanings have been addressed by poets and artists as well, of course, quite often working in Paris. Paris in its most cosmopolitan era (say between 1870 and 1940) was seen as the symbol of modernity by poets like Baudelaire, or cultural analysts like Simmel or Benjamin (see Donald for a discussion), and later by the surrealists, including Henry Miller (see his Tropic of Cancer). To take a common theme, Paris offered a tremendous cultural diversity, with people and goods from all over the world crashed together in districts, or, classically, in arcades. A poetic pleasure was on offer to those who could pursue it as one wandered among this cultural treasure house, as an observer, in a spirit of detachment – a flâneur -- marvelling at the diversity, trying out different ‘readings’ in order to imagine what it must be like to live in such circumstances, and revelling in the sense of relativism and freedom from constraint. Sometimes this might be tinged with a certain nostalgia for the certainties of the old ways of life, of course (and sometimes with an anger directed at the newcomers, although this sort of analysis was to come much later). Meanwhile, the sensible bourgeoisie coped with their usual cheerful pragmatism and developed what Simmel describes as a modernist sensibility – not to put too fine a point on it, the bourgeoisie rely on the money mechanism as a guide for their behaviour. The ‘money relation’ already reduces differences among goods and imposes some universal measure of value among them, to permit some sort of relation between them – it becomes ‘applied’ to deal with social life too, and turns into a cool indifference towards cultural diversity, in favour of a more ‘functional’ relationship instead. This goes together with a highly recognisable urban preoccupation – with what would be called these days the ‘politics of identity’, an obsession with style, with tiny differences of clothing or appearance to preserve some sort of symbolic individuality (I was tempted to say ‘as a "magical solution"’ to urban indifference) 

 Try a short aside on Simmel and allied issues

4. There has been a recent interest in what might be called the ‘ordinary’ readings of city symbolism too, those performed not by poets or skilled commentators but by the inhabitants. The usual text here, although it is still very abstract, is De Certeau on walking in the city (see Donald again). DeCerteau sees the act of walking as a way of imposing a local and personal narrative on the city, one which operates behind or despite the official maps and routes. This piece is inspired by the need to reassert the power of ‘ordinary people’ to resist the mechanisms of power and control (and, one might add, surveillance). 

 Try another short aside 'applying' this argument

5. Campbell’s article is a useful reminder that much of this sort of work has gone on in major cosmopolitan cities, and she restores the balance, and abolishes some of the poetic sensibility, with descriptions or ‘readings’ of some provincial ones. She has no time for optimistic views of the new kind of ‘service work’ on offer either. I especially liked her description of Basingstoke in the late 1980s…

‘Thatchergrad…a developer with no fear and no flair has bulldozed the ancient and organic heart of this market town…to build a downtown Dallas…the shopping centre [was] built in the genre of brutalism…The citizen is only a consumer…The place dies at night…one of the pioneer privatisers…Culture…seems thoroughly privatised…an evening’s entertainment in Basingstoke [is] "a wine box and a video"… "Each job is very narrowed down, very repetitive and very boring" says an IBM secretary.’
So – in summary, let’s render this as a nice pedagogic debate. It is clear that cities are sites of both cultural pleasures, and economic and political power. It is important to avoid overemphasising either dimension. Just seeing cities as places serving economic functions is to miss the dimension of urban attractions, cities as sites of cultural pleasures of various kinds, planned and unplanned. This sort of cultural dimension is apparent even to hard-headed city planners, as well as to flâneurs and visiting commentators, and is leading to increasing amounts of urban tourism or the ‘theming’ of urban environments (including ‘heritaging’ them). On the other hand, reading cities as ‘texts’ can be excessively idealist, and ignore, as is common with such readings, the economic and political functions and origins of those texts – before Portsmouth was a museum,  it was a real military city, playing a major part in the military interventions of the British Empire, and providing much of the city with its functions and its work. Its redevelopment owes a great deal to an unholy combination of the Luftwaffe in World War 2, and a collision of planning ideals, as the intention to restore a (modernised) community got overtaken by a phase of laissez-faire capitalism based on a huge rise in urban land values. In a more surrealist mode, to paraphrase a famous 1960s student slogan - beneath the blocks of flats in Portsea lies the red-light district! 

 Finally, any readers of this material, fed up with the English examples, might try the debates ‘applied’ to a world-famous American (world) city (and one which I have never visited – any offers welcome) – Los Angeles. For me, the approaches are summarised nicely by comparing two accounts:
1. Davis (1992) sets out to analyse LA, by offering a detailed history and sociology of the city – a very critical and largely marxist one in fact – to counter prevalent myths. Thus the myth of the ‘sunshine state’ can be traced to ‘boosters’ talking up land values. Various myths of racial characteristics cover a savage history of labour exploitation, and rugged individualism serves to cover organised anti-Trade Union legislation. There are even myths on the Left – Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their (published in 1979) account of the ‘culture industry’ while staying in LA, and completely missed the history of socialist, ethnic and community based struggle and resistance in favour of an account of a largely passive and fascistic populace. Indeed, foreign intellectuals were among the worst promoters of the myths – even the artists and intellectuals imported into Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. The latest examples concern the efforts in the 1980s to render LA as a major cultural centre and ‘world city’ (the basis of many ‘postmodern’ readings), which have to conveniently overlook the substantial military and scientific bases in the city. These tendencies were exacerbated by migrating artists and intellectuals, and an ambitious university with a desire to develop a definite ‘LA School’ of urban studies (including Soja, of whom more below). LA became a key example of ‘postmodernism’ from an unholy alliance of academics and local boosters, well aware of the value of such a term. Like all general labels, this one rides above and ignores the real local cultures and political struggles – instead of grasping the real issues, too many people settled for the sanitised and cultural version – ‘gangsta rap’ (and, one could add, the off-shoot films like Colors or Boyz’n’the Hood). 

2. Soja (1989) has two attempts to map LA in two successive chapters (chs 8 and 9). In the first one, he also reminds us of the complexity of LA (especially of Greater LA), which seems to defy any general approaches or models. We could use it to modify Mulgan’s approach, for example – LA is indeed a centre for information and culture, but it is also a major manufacturing base, scientific centre, and a political military and commercial centre too. It has a large underground economy too, leading to high rates of crime and several urban political movements. It thrives on mixture of radical free enterprise and what Soja calls ‘military Keynesianism’ (substantial federal and local State subsidies aimed at military production but spilling over into transport and other services). It is both cosmopolitan and highly segregated, both in terms of class and ‘race’, and further fragmented by occupational divisions. It has a strong centre and a huge peripheral ring, itself building into smaller centres. Organised labour has been largely defeated, and there is substantial skilled work – but there is also massive lowly-paid and unskilled work too, in a fundamentally polarised work force. It is a world city in two senses – it is ‘known’ throughout the world as some sort of symbol of things to come, and it has imported people from all over the world, to such an extent that it is as profitable to manufacture some goods in the fragments of LA than it is to produce them in the ‘Third World’
 If LA is some ‘leading edge’ in city development, it is leading to complexity, not any sort of simple ‘postfordist’ or ‘New Times’ model. To be sure, there are postfordist landscapes – but there are Fordist ones too, and a huge variety of others, downtown urban, suburban, ‘surfurbia’ along the coast, a multitude of ‘ethni-cities’ (sic), some deliberately planned and themed, some imaginary – a whole variety of Disneyworlds, including magic kingdoms and EPCOTs (p246)

Soja is unsure how best to grasp this complexity, which he sees as the crucial factor. In the first chapter, he opts for a model based on the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a marxist theorist developing out of the Althusserian school, and argues for this complexity as the concrete product of ‘many determinations’ (ultimately traceable to the three ‘levels’ of capitalist society – the economic, political and ideological/cultural levels) see Althusser on the 'levels' . In his second effort he pursues a more literary metaphor, arguing, in effect, that the whole (picture) is not graspable by any of the usual methods but can only be inferred, so to speak, captured as much by poetic techniques of spelling out the meanings of signs and terms as by hardened social scientific techniques. 

Adorno T and Horkheimer M (1979) Dialectic of the Enlightenment, London: Heinemann
Bocock R and Thompson K (eds) (1992) Social and Cultural Forms of Modernity, Milton Keynes, Open University Press
Davis M (1992) City of Quartz: excavating the future in Los Angeles, London: Vintage
Hall S and Jacques M (eds) (1989) New Times: the changing face of politics in the 1990s, London: Lawrence and Wishart
Soja E (1989) Postmodern Geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory, London and New York: Verso 
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