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ities do not adhere to modernist prescriptions. They neither follow linear trajectories nor move seamlessly through a series of perfect and complete political projects. Many geographers, anthropologists, and urban scholars have indeed pointed out that totalizing projects around the “modern” city often come apart. In his recent book, however, Colin McFarlane takes a different tack—a contribution I thoroughly appreciate. He pursues how things come apart, how modernist promises do not necessarily hold. The answer lies in fragmented urbanism. Urbanism, he contends, unfolds in bits and pieces that bring together relations, materialities, spaces, temporalities, socialities, creating multiple contemporaneous politics. It is in this constant making and remaking of fragmented relations that the city comes alive, again and again, with no end in sight.
Maybe what I appreciate most about fragmented urbanism as a framework is that it doesn’t betray its main premise, in both content and form. Fragmented urbanism is not intended to give us a complete picture of urban analysis. It presents multiple ways to think with the urban. It is a companion alongside which we can attend to the city’s inhabitants, ecologies, materials, relations, all constitutive of the urban, incomplete. At the same time, fragmented urbanism does not exceptionalise fragmentation as a unique mode of alterity with endless potential. After all, fragmented urbanism is urbanism, located within broader social, economic, and political contexts, McFarlane shows us. It captures both shifting political balances and the mundane sites through which power becomes exerted.
Now, the rest of the review keeps with the book’s spirit in three fragments. Each fragment ends with a question, for McFarlane and us as readers to ponder.
1. Fragment as Verb
McFarlane is explicit about what the fragments in fragmented urbanism signify: they are verbs rather than nouns. Fragments animate people and things, they are generative of politics, they forge relations. They do rather than solely are. In this sense, fragments are ways of becoming the city.
The work of fragments becomes particularly visible to us in cases of breakdown and repair. The pipes, walls, and stairs in the Torre de David Building in Caracas break down, inciting think tanks and residents to improvise with repair. We see a form of material improvisation borne out of necessity, far from a romantic portrayal. Or, in Kampala’s Namuwongo neighbourhood, residents pool together skills, connections, and relationships to lay the ground for new possibilities. By consolidating fragmented socialities, they practice care as a generative act.
But remember, nothing is settled in the fragmented city—even acting with fragments. Right to Pee activists in Mumbai, for instance, show us that “shifting away from fragments” (McFarlane, 2021: 140), rather than clinging to and claiming them, also forms political acts by urban inhabitants. They frame their demands for public toilets through assembling quantitative knowledge that provides a bigger picture (“surveying wholes,” as McFarlane [2021: 140] says). So, fragment as a verb is always in relation with more-than-fragments, and it is in this relation that fragments provide spaces for urbanites to act.
Engaging with what fragments do politically, McFarlane shows us the rich ways in which they can create horizontal politics for urban communities, yet only tells us that fragments can do vertical work as well. I cannot help but think about how fragmenting has been employed as a top-down political act. Take redlining in Chicago, for example, or development projects in Turkey that designate portions of neighbourhoods as urban transformation zones. How else, then, can we think about the political topographies of fragments? How can fragments, as political acts drawing on different forms of powers, interact with and shape one another?
2. Fragment as Knowing
Let me reiterate: fragments do not just exist, they act. And they do so relationally. Fragments come into becoming by forging relations. In making things, people, and environs relate, fragments create repertoires for city dwellers to act. Fragments engender ways of knowing through these relational repertoires. In short, the relational work that constitutes fragments creates modes of knowing the city.
Crucially, knowing the city is not a given. It is a process of negotiation that puts fragments of the city in relation with each other. It is also an incitement to action, McFarlane reminds us. In a way, then, fragments act as an intermediary between knowing and doing. They bring knowing and doing in relation. To my mind, a more interesting part of this discussion concerns presence and absence. For McFarlane, presence and absence of relations inform knowing and doing in the city. Relations that can open up new paths are ways of knowing as important as those that do not. Absences often remain absent in discussions of urban repertoires, which makes McFarlane’s contribution even more important. Yet, for me, it prompts more questions: How can we parse out how relations emanate from fragments, going one step beyond saying that they do? And, how can McFarlane’s brilliant discussion of absence and presence account for the different kinds of intensities, consolidations, or contestations around repertoires of knowing and acting in the city?
3. Fragments as Method
Earlier, I mentioned that McFarlane reveals the pertinence of fragments in both content and form. It is not only the distinctive style of short segments in which the book is written, but how McFarlane used these segments to weave together different places, people, ways of being—fragmented urbanisms—that is exceptional. The way the book is written itself mirrors McFarlane’s conceptual framework, illuminating how seemingly disparate fragments relate to make malleable sense of urban worlds. Writing in fragments thus becomes a method.
Fragment as method does not stop at writing: it is also a form of archiving artistic experimentation. McFarlane shows us that fragmented urbanism is being tinkered with through artistic forms of expressions across the city. Its surfaces, visual artifacts, and even waste are archives that “force a ‘stepping back’ and reflection on the city and on living together” (McFarlane, 2021: 133). This point provokes us to reconsider what an archive is. Urban archives are necessarily fragmented, resisting coherent collations. They live and breathe. They refuse to be confined to the past, moving between multiple temporal orientations. Thus, fragments as method further reveals the temporal work fragments can do.
Multiple communities in cities across the world attest to the potential of fragments as method—a smart choice by McFarlane, keeping with fragmented urbanism’s premise of being in relation. As I appreciate this approach, I also wonder: what would, say, a “thick” fragmented urbanism look like? How can fragments act as methods when we stand still, engage more deeply in the relations in one neighbourhood, one street, one home, for example? How can fragment as method translate to the deepening and thickening of urban relations?
To my mind, an excellent book generates more questions than it answers. It demands the reader to think with it. This is exactly what Fragments of the City has done for me. I am confident that we will continue hearing, reading, and reflecting on fragmented urbanism, as a verb, way of knowing, and method in the years to come.
McFarlane C (2021) Fragments of the City: Making and Remaking Urban Worlds. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Alize Arıcan (she/her) is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Boston University Society of Fellows. Her ethnographic research focuses on urban renewal, futurity, care, and migration in Istanbul, Turkey. Her work has been featured in Current Anthropology, City & Society, JOTSA, Radical Housing Journal, and entanglements.