Divided Cities

Divided Cities Book Cover

In March, Cambridge Review of International Affairs published my review of Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). I was busy teaching  this spring and so forgot to write about it at the time – but I have returned to thinking about some of these themes in the wake of recent riots in Belfast.

A Nationalist youth standing near burning vehicles throws a missile at police in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast July 12, 2010. Nationalists in Northern Ireland attacked police with petrol bombs and other missiles during parades by the pro-British Orange Order on Monday, witnesses said. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Calame and Charlesworth’s book is an interesting set of reflections based on rich fieldwork that offers scholars of urban violence much to think about. The central concern of the book is precisely the kind of divisions that are evident in the violence that erupted around the annual Orange Order parades in Northern Ireland last week. Indeed, Divided Cities is focused on the question of how urban environments become deeply divided and what might be done about this.

Calame and Charlesworth – as well as Lebeus Woods in the forward to the book – argue that divisions are likely to haunt the city in the present era as urbanisation leads to increased frictions between different communities and urban managers fail to provide the overarching security these groups need to allow them to live in proximity without fear. Overall they see divisions such as we see in Belfast or Nicosia as the formalisation of ad hoc arrangements to provide temporary security. Over time fences grow into walls and become indispensable to narratives of identity and safety.

What I find interesting is the notion of the city embedded into the book. Calame and Charlesworth take the walled city as their paradigm for understanding the contract that supposedly exists between city managers and citizens. This contract  is portrayed as one where citizens give up  some income or freedom in return for safety. Originally it is argued that this took the form of citizens in medieval walled cities being protected from those external to the city. But in the present era it is argued that citizens should be protected from forms of friction that might arise within the city. I find three consequences of this depiction of the supposed ‘urban contract’ of interest.

Firstly, it is – like most theories in International Relations – predicated on the idea that security is prophylactic action in which an individual or community is protected from an external threat by some form of gap or barrier. Conceptually this narrative is based on the idea that the walled city provided security by excluding dangerous others. But if this is the conceptual trope that underlies this narrative it is perhaps unsurprising to see urban managers moving the wall within the city to solve problems of urban friction. Moreover, if walls signify the exclusion of others, it is also natural for those who find their worlds cleft by walls to regard those on the other side of them as others. Basing the story on the walled city thus has the effect of normalising the relation of walls and security in a way that stores problems for the future.

Secondly, I find the idea of the managed city somewhat idealistic. The notion of a bargain of income/freedom for security resonates with the idea of a social contract. And yet we know that no actual social contract exists – it is a hypothetical device to try to envisage how a political settlement might have been reached. In reality the political bargian a contract is supposed to capture is only ever implicit. More often this bargin is imagined by observers looking back into the past and seeking to explain why a political order managed to be stable for a while. In practice the particular configuration of politics at any one time is a result of the sedimentation of a number of non-linear processes. Moreover, attempts generate a contract are invariably disrupted by the contingencies of real life. To argue for a contract between urban managers and citizens is thus to imagine a political rebirth that, in reality, can never happen (nor ever really did happen). Perhaps the greater question is how accommodations can be made between currently antagonistic parties so that walls are removed without a central authority.

Finally, there is an interesting question at the heart of Calame and Charlesworth’s work about the friction that is inherent to the city. Of course it is undesirable to have walls that encourage us to fear the others that lie beyond them. This can only promote cycles of violence. And yet, cities are marked by a plurality that will always entail a certain irresolvable provocation or friction. It is this irresolvable friction that Jean-Luc Nancy refers to when he notes that the city has been philosophy’s problem. Because rationality likes to have single answers it hates the ambivalence of irresolvable tension or friction. As such it tries to impose its will on the city to remove the ambivalence that rises from continual friction. Urban planning and urban militarism are good examples of this lack of tolerance for ambivalence and tension. The question that must be addressed is how to acknowledge tension and friction without letting it solidify into walls.

So, while I enjoyed reading Divided Cities, it left me with many questions. You can read a pre publication draft here.

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