The Idea’s Constipation?

As Žižek puts it in ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’ – ‘The Idea’s Constipation?’ is very much the same what I have been feeling recently. To quote –

“When a discipline is in crisis, attempts are made to change or supplement its theses within the terms of its basic framework – a procedure one might call ‘Ptolemization’ (since when data poured in which clashed with Ptolemy’s earth-centred astronomy, his partisans introduced additional complications to account for the anomalies). But the true ‘Copernican’ revolution takes place when, instead of just adding complications and changing minor premises, the basic framework itself undergoes a transformation. So, when we are dealing with a self-professed ‘scientific revolution’, the question to ask is always: is this truly a Copernican revolution, or merely a Ptolemization of the old paradigm?”

I don’t want to claim a crisis of discipline with my limited understanding nor do I want to paint an apocalyptical picture for urban theory or understanding of cities, but what I have been encountering/reading/talking etc. points an inquiry into the same.

Keith Hart in his ILO report in the 1970s got the informal into lime light, and this was quite revolutionary because till then the focus on understanding the urban was from the West, or let me call it the North, as the global theorists identify geography now. Not intending to taking a linear historic path, but pinning three major works in our understanding of the urban and specifically informal urbanism.

Rem Koolhaas (1995) with his glamorous Lagos studio made a romantic but a relevant observation –

“Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather we may be catching up with Lagos”

This statement almost sums up the entire approach where Koolhaas rather than picturing Lagos as developing, states that the city in itself is a phenomenon and can’t be explained from the western theorization of cities. Of-course burdened by his time and profession (of being an architect) as Godlewski (2010) argues – burdened by the “growing sense that architectural theory should address global practice rather than singular monuments in the Western world.” Koolhaas’s observations or statements were not new in urban understanding but none the less very crucial for the architectural world.

In early 2000s, writings of Ananya Roy and others from the same group quite vehemently opposes Koolhaas and starts to portray him (and other architects with similar ventures)  as researchers who are having a voyeuristic pleasure with cities. Aesthetization of poverty and numerous other terms are products of similar approach. Roy’s contribution is the ‘Subaltern urbanism’, in the sense that the mega cities of the south are the subaltern of urban theory. If we look closely her approach is very similar to that of Koolhaas, but more nuanced. To put it in Žižek’s term another ‘Ptolemization’.

“Informality must be understood as an idiom of urbanization, a logic through which differential spatial value is produced & managed”   (Roy and AlSayyad 2004)

A new quote which in essence is exactly that of what Koolhaas said about Lagos. Roy’s argument is much more global but no new perspective added in a decade. Through numerous papers and more invented terms, saying the same old thing that cities in the global south should NOT be seen as cities en route to the western notion of cities, rather they on their own and have their own story and dynamics.

In 2006, by her much acclaimed book ‘Ordinary Cities’, Jennifer Robinson, proposes a “post colonizing” of urban studies. She proposes that the center of urban theory should move to the cities in Global South. With reference to my shallow understanding, that is exactly what Koolhaas, and many before him have proposed.

“The existing bias in urban studies towards Western cities and the relegation of cities in poor countries as residual categories makes the irrelevance of urban theory a real possibility in the light of global trends in urbanization.” (Jennifer Robinson 2006)

I am in no way making a case for Koolhaas, but using Koolhaas as a tool to argue that nothing much has changed in urban theory for the past two decades. This is resulting in projects and studies of cities, specially in the global south to have the same perspective which if I may say was of Keith Hart. Cities have changed from the 1970s and so did the way globalization has played its game. Globalization of cities is no more the proliferation of western ideas to the east, the east in itself has imbibed and is effecting the very ideology. So to try to understand contemporary cities we need to update our theoretical framework, one that can be old but not two decades old…


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