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REVIEW: Post-Modern Cities and Spaces
Edited by Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson
Reviewed by Grahame Shane

After a period of drought, there is a welcome flood of good textbooks and readers on the post-modern city. This new literature incorporates theories critical of the cozy, feel good, look good formulas of the so-called (and singular) “New Urbanism” of the 1980’s. Urban designers finally have a chance to move beyond the profoundly antiurban, enclave-obsessed earlier era. They have the chance to examine some of the larger issues which have always significantly shaped their tasks, issues such as race, economics, class systems, and property ownership. These issues have always  served as subtext to even the most successful city beautification programs.

Post-Modern Cities and Spaces, Center and Symbol of Our Times, edited by Philip Kasmitz, and Readings in Urban Theory, edited by Fainstein and Campbell, mark the arrival of a far more critical appreciation of the city. Taken in conjunction with the recent arrival of Nan Ellin’s comprehensive Postmodern Urbanism, a summer reader faces a veritable Niagara Falls of post-modern critical analyses and anthologies.

Within this larger field, Post-Modern Cities and Spaces distinguishes itself by carving out a highly specialized and valuable niche, focusing on the concept of heterotopia. Heterotopias might literally mean the place of the other, or a place of difference. Anyone living in Los Angeles is immediately familiar with this form of urbanity, the utopian fragment dominated by a particular rigid order, or else seductive in its promise of transgression or “freedom” from codes. Michel Foucault described the rigid utopian vision, like the prison, as the “heterotopia of compensation,” where inmates needed compensatory discipline to keep order. Its transgressive opposite was the “heterotopia of illusion,” such as the stock market or the bordello (accelerated worlds of images and fetishism, where everything was a commodity with a constantly shifting, market-driven price). Since the mid-198o’s, post-modern theorists have expanded on this review of Post-Modern Cities  to analyze the constellation of fragments that make up any contemporary city.

The first two essays, by Edward Soja of UCLA and by Benjamin Gennochio of the University of Sydney, are crucial contributions to the clarification of Foucault’s remarks, and, in Soja’s case, their application to Los Angeles (echoing his Postmodern Geographies of 1989). Soja’s essay provides a critical rereading of his earlier work, outlining 5 points about heterotopias and recording Baudrillard’s visit to Los Angeles, as well as his media and speed-based commentaries on the limitations of Foucault’s concept (contained in his Forget Foucault, 1987). The encounter between Soja and Gennocchio (who had written of heterotopias in the Australian architectural journal Transitions) is here given ample space to unfold, enriching our understanding of heterotopias via Lefebvre (the lived space) and Althusser (ideological spaces). In particular Soja brings to light the dialectic between space and time in enclave formation, so that each space has its own “heterochronies.” Sometimes these time-worlds are fleeting and transitory, sometimes packaged and compressed, sometimes intended for the long duration.

Watson and Gibson follow this bravura display of conceptual detachment and geographic theory with a radical shift towards the narratives of the previously excluded. The three essays are an equally impressive selection from recent feminist writing on the city. Elizabeth Wilson’s 1992 essay “The Invisible Flaneur” is valuable for its elucidation of the patterns of gendered spaces etched into the modern (19th century) city. Wilson questions the accuracy of readings of Victorian female sexual repression described by other feminist historian/critics. Unlike such critics as Janet Wolff and Giselda Pollock, Wilson appreciates both the repression and the liberation made possible in the anonymity of the great mass of society and its metro­politan life style. Here, space and time translate into narrative voices and paths cut through the city by independent women. Women’s pleasures were repressed and directed by society towards reified commodity consumption in temples of fashion. But the city also offered illicit channels of communication and assembly, hosting night clubs and literary or social societies, allowing women to develop their own spaces. Where Foucault saw such heterotopias from above, Wilson shows the personal and societal logic which drove the creation of such milieux at a particular time and space. Her characters, whether flaneur or flaneuse, prostitute or customer, are multidimensional, as is her city, becoming a commodity to be consumed like any other.

Elizabeth Grosz’s short article “Women, Chora, Dwelling” lays the groundwork for the return of women to those places from which they have been displaced. She argues that the chora, the background void from which material emerged in Greek philosophy, so essential to Plato and Derrida, may serve as one of the earliest models of a phallocentric disenfranchisement of women, detaching feminity from the female, especially the maternal body. Grosz values Derrida for his questioning, inverting and decentering of Platonic norms, but is realistic about the ambiguity of his writings on Heidegger’s and de Man’s involvement with fascism. She bases her critique of Derrida on Luce Irigaray’s descriptions of women’s struggles to acquire autonomous spaces and times for themselves. Dwellings are eschewed as support spaces for masculine identities, exactly the position of the chora for Derrida and Plato.

Gillian Swanson’s ” ‘Drunk with Glitter': Consuming Spaces and Sexual Geographies” beautifully amplifies Wilson’s earlier commentary on the sexual geographies of the city. Swanson describes how men saw female sexuality as a threat to be displaced into avenues of material consumption, recast through advertising. Swanson writes that women’s urban encounters are “formed by a mobile, temporary, contingent set of affinities” that reflect women’s temporal and spatial choices in selecting resourcing strategies in a contingent and changing world, forming shifting communities of interests.

The first part of the anthology ends with two explorations of how the geographer’s detached perspective might critically interact with the shifting, changing world of more personalized narratives of a mass of gendered, human individuals. In “Not Belonging in Post modern Space” John Lechte adds the Situationist Michel de Certeau to the normative, francophile post-modern cocktail of J-F Lyotard, Julia Kristeva (the Choral) and Baudelaire (the Flaneur). The Situationists attacked the progressive time sense of modern science and proposed instead an emphasis on the space of a situation or a setting for an event. Lechte uses Joyce’s Ulysses to illustrate this penchant for the chance encounter and random serendipity of the city. Surprisingly he ends with an evaluation of Tschumi’s Park de La Villete (financed, sponsored and built by the authoritarian, centralized and bureaucratic, patriarchical French state) as a design which incorporates chance encounters into the city. Paul Patton’s “Imaginary Cities” traces various readings of the fragmented city from Jonathan Rabin’s Soft Cities(1974) to Harvey’s re-interpetation in Condition of Post-Modernity (1990). Patton prefers Rabin’s concept of a self-conscious urban theater, which, though more pragmatic and ironic, still harbors a sense of personal freedom and space for the play of a spontaneous imagination. Patton argues that Harvey and Frederick Jameson create an imaginary, rhetorical image of the city. Patton cites as evidence the famous description of the interior maze of LA’s fortress-like Bonaventure Hotel in Jameson’s Post-modernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1984). Patton thinks that such spaces have now become normal and are no longer disorientating, nor do we necessarily see the world in such images. Parts two and three of the anthology present case studies of particular cities and regions which give body to the earlier theoretical discussions of heterotopia. As the editors point out, these studies are inseparable from their main arguments and also are theoretical, their division into economic and political sections merely an editorial convenience. The authors pursue Foucault’s argument that colonies often conformed to heterotopic formulas as either rigid penal colonies or commodity trading centers.

The final essay, “Not Chaos, But Walls; Post-Modernism and the Partitioned City” by Peter Marcuse, provides an overall perspective and counterbalance to the general treatment of fragmentation and heterotopias. Marcuse argues that the great fragmentation masks an unprecedented concentration of economic power at a global scale. He writes of “the attempt to impose chaos on order […], the attempt to cover an increasingly pervasive pattern of hierarchical relationships among people and orderings of city space reselecting and reinforcing that hierarchical pattern with a cloak of calculated randomness (p.242 ).”

Marcuse then lists 5 different, separate but interdependent types of economic cities which coexist within the post-modern city, as well as 5 different residential types of neighborhoods. He ends with 5 different types of walls that separate these various types of cities and neighborhoods. Marcuse argues that such walls can serve to reinforce hierarchies, but that hierarchy is not an inevitable part of social organization, as “today we have the resources, skill and room to be able to combine justice with prosperity” (p.251) without such a wall. Planning could play a useful role in breaking them down.

Post-Modern Cities and Spaces defines its particular niche about the axis of heterotopias and excluded voices with great precision. The problem with this very useful anthology is that by the end we are no closer to a resolution of the dialectic of the largely male urban geographers, with the largely female, academic voices speaking for the oppressed and excluded. Furthermore, by the very end, after the array of post colonial cities, there emerges the distinct impression that the hetertopic images of freedom and diversity may indeed be only a mask for a major, global restructuring of power in new concentrations. The role of the media in this new configuration is obviously very important and nowhere explored in this anthology. Nor does the normal, “messy” (Foucault’s term), historic city, which was the host of his heterotopias, emerge in this anthology. This is a strange lacuna. This area of multiple use and overlap, resistant to the heterotopic new order, takes on a renewed importance and heterotopias are indeed the chosen vehicles of the new global, capitalist order. The editors, Sophie Watson and Katherine Gibson, have done well to concentrate and explore the many questions about heterotopias and their exclusions, even if all of the questions raised cannot be answered.

Back to Summer 1997 Newsletter: Summer Reading