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s recent debates in urban geography turn to questions of efficiency and development they, perhaps unintentionally, compel us to think about cities in superficial terms. That is, to what extent are cities experienced as ordered, convenient and accessible to anyone who might pass through them? Urban centers are either underdeveloped or “smart,” world-class or provincial, sophisticated spaces driven by data science and superior planning or neglected and falling behind (Peake, 2016). Regionally, scholars also conceptualize cities as either the habitable North or uninhabitable South (Roy, 2016). It is this view that AbdouMaliq Simone challenges in Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance in an Urban South. Here, Simone demands scholars pay closer attention to cities as social relations, and positions the urban South as a dynamic space in which people, in one way or another, map their own lives. While critiques of spatial fundamentalism are well-established (Roy, 2016), the way in which Simone applies a mixture of autobiography, ethnography and prose to his observations of life in the Global South (with stops in Chicago and Naples) to explore the intimacies that (re)make these cities, makes this book an engaging and motivating read.
Improvised Lives is an essential addition to conversations in urban theory, urban planning, human geography and cultural studies. Simone’s analysis, however, has much to offer frustrated and alienated city dwellers as well (including those lonely citizens who are the subject of intense study and concern in places like Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States). In rejecting a rigid understanding of the uninhabitable as violent, crowded and infrastructure-poor, Improvised Lives argues that for all a place seems to lack, it can be lived with — if not transformed — in meaningful ways. Finance-driven development is less influential in Simone’s reading than the way people bend these intrusions to their will and endure the changes they’ve wrought. “Rhythms of endurance” (in “A Lure for (Yet) Another South:”1) create new opportunities for moving forward and preserve those ways of living that make “home” recognizable.
Thus, the overworked, touch-deprived, marginalized and over-surveilled of the world’s metropolises (and increasingly, the mega-cities and suburbs) are positioned as subject-authors in a way that massive urban revitalization projects, urban policy plans and studies of urban culture can often obscure (Grossberg, 1996:140). In this text, cities are not necessarily bounded spaces; they are understood, instead, as sites of improvisation. People reach out and distance themselves through acts of care and preservation; they do this for the individuals and the communities created in these urban spaces. Put differently, without obscuring pain, inequity, and economic struggle, Simone argues that everyday practices of care are invented and reinvented, reworked and abandoned, as modes of habitation that are otherwise dismissed. Endurance, as Simone theorizes it, is a collective, spatial experience. As the people in Improvised Lives devise strategies to make their way through the day, coming up against each other in sometimes surprising ways, they also construct a city that can contain these interactions and strategies outside normative urban logics.
The many forms of ensemble work outlined in Improvised Lives are especially meaningful to me. As an urban dweller and scholar, I am drawn to questions about isolation, displacement and dispossession in the world’s cities. I write this review during the Covid19 pandemic and it is unsurprising that, during a global pandemic, the inadequacies in the way our cities operate are laid bare. The cruelties that often accompany evictions, the gig economy, working life in general, childcare, and more, are part of the hum in the background of urban life. One’s ability to endure these conditions — by say, stringing together a couple of precarious jobs and care networks to afford an overpriced basement apartment — become simultaneously common and invisible. While economic precarity and oppression are a global experience, the lives of communities living under duress in the Global South are not central to how we are collectively navigating or understanding the monumental shift initiated by Covid19. While displacement and endurance are not new, this iteration of hardship is especially stark because it has reorganized our worlds while also keeping in place longstanding geographic presumptions. People in “forgotten” places — the Global South and otherwise — who craft and reimagine our world with an attentiveness for each other are obscured from view. Simone argues that practices for living with instability will be found in those places with an infrastructure for moving forward despite sustained marginalization. It is in these places that we can see the infrastructure for making livable spaces out of unideal and less privileged circumstances (in “Inscribing Lives:” 2).
Simone’s analysis reorients notions of livability through a carefully observed study of the intimacies that characterize life in Naples, Jakarta, Les Abricots and Seelampur. Similarly, Freetown and Beirut are animated by various hustles and negotiations. Improvised Lives manages to break these urban geographies down into carefully observed methods for living. The metaphor of quilting is incredibly effective (and affective) here as care takes the form of activism, curated alliances, escape and return. For scholars who are inclined to thinking of places at the level of human and more-than-human processes of kinship-making and community-building, Simone contributes rich material for theorizing the Global South. As well, Simone asserts that so-called peripheral spaces will come to shape the politics of the future and determine the social practices that emerge in response to new and old sources of harm. These peripheries, Simone argues, are not chosen by their residents in the ways that have traditionally been. Peripheries are, in fact, unforeseen and malleable. Thus, when living next to the neighbours they didn’t expect, while working in precarious economies, where day-to-day routes are unanticipated, in spaces that are not explicitly tagged as normal or habitable, the periphery is constantly engaged in improvisation.
With all of this in mind, and drawing on Simone’s insights, I want to suggest that: “districting” (what Simone describes as the creation of places – districts – that contain many lives without fixing them space or confining them to a certain set of expectations) is a theoretical approach that further challenges spatial fundamentalism in urban theory by ascribing greater agency to the emotional geographies and lived realities of people moving in and out of places. Further, indifference and the concept of “spiraling” can address questions of care – or lack of care – in spaces that have been reordered by the expansion of neoliberalism. Taking up districting to understand and write about those places that are simultaneously forgotten and scrutinized is significant for future scholars because it is, at its core, a compassionate challenge. Simone refuses traditional spatial categorizations, acknowledging that relying on these kinds of analytical and geographic formations would necessarily lead to a misreading of the motivations and attachments of marginalized communities who reside in these places. Through its refusal to easily categorize the uninhabitable, distancing expands the boundaries of space: cities, neighbourhoods, regions contain lives, yes, but they also endow their inhabitants with a familiar place that makes improvisation possible. This place is not static but holds in it the ability to move; home, then, is precarious but it is also sustained through care networks and other practices of belonging that do not require fixed or time-honoured geographies. For those studying displacement and diaspora, for example, these movements and the location of home in multiple sites is appealing. People who move in and out of cities are enacting a politics of endurance that depends on making alliances for indeterminate ends, but always, hopefully, constructing a stable place that makes room for many life projects in progress. In many ways, Simone refuses to “discipline” his subjects, to hold them down to any script or location. Even in moments of stability, citizens of the world’s uninhabitable places are both moving and “missing in action” (in “A Human Surge:”15).
Embedded in districting is the concept of detachment. Simone uses metaphors of quilting and harmolodics to explain how strategies for refusing and initiating intimacy can work to build community: social relations are as much about severing bonds as they are about making them. I see in this a challenge to understand places for what they are and how they are lived in and with. That is, avoiding the tendency to theorize about so-called peripheral places in ways that make them familiar — organized sites of capital accumulation, for example — but instead recognizing that “a somewhere must proportion exposure and opacity” (in “Distracting Somewhere:”8). In fact, these methods for enduring places also means resisting total visibility and thus, vulnerability to data fetishists and predatory developers.
Finally, I return to the lonely and alienated city-dwellers. Both indifference and spiraling as they are described in Improvised Lives unsettle typical understandings of sociability and intimacy in cities that appear to lack both. Further, these concepts allow for a more generous reading and less fatalistic approach to urban isolation and individualism. I don’t mean to romanticize these processes of spiraling and indifference by suggesting that living under racial capitalism makes possible simple counternarratives and solutions for survival (for example, care and detachment). Nor am I suggesting that all acts of opportunism or apathy be reframed as alternative forms of care. Instead, following Simone, concepts like indifference and spiraling are methods for living through – improvising not resolving – the uninhabitable. In the concept of spiraling—the way in which people measure their need for one another in every interaction—there is an opening for intimacy that is not overrun by opportunism. If we observe these alliances and interactions as creating the potential for rogue care, rather than as shallow and cunning forms of engaging with others, how might conversations about isolation in the city evolve? What might we learn from thinking of indifference (“Undoing Harm:”5) — to each other, to conditions around us — not as complacency but instead as the refusal to respond as expected?
It is difficult not to approach Improvised Lives and its attendant concepts as a guidebook for navigating the messy realities of urban life. “Messy” here isn’t a criticism: as much of this text demonstrates, there is little about living in cities that is neatly structured or even predictable – but this isn’t always a defection. Or, if it is, for whom? In Jakarta, for example, Simone demonstrates attempts to order cities and their residents to meet the needs of capital come up against the needs of the population such that these complexes are transformed for more sustainable ways of cohabitating and maintaining ownership. Examples such as this animate Improvised Lives, shifting our understanding of urban space away from fixed infrastructures that we differentially navigate and move toward spatial innovations that rethink and reimagine the material and affective possibilities of city life. Indeed, there is something to be said for the melancholia that surrounds conversations about global cities today (their declining affordability, increasing sense of isolation and thus, varying levels of livability). In this sense, I read Improvised Lives as an attempt to reorient our understanding not only of the Global South in urban geographical scholarship but also our approach to the challenges of living in the Global North, equally consumed by the demands of daily living and uncertain about how to address them. Simone offers a rebuttal to scholarship and policy that attempts to restructure the uninhabitable without seeing it at all.
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Kadvany E (2019) The battle against America’s loneliness crisis In The Guardian. Available here.
Peake L (2016) The Twenty-First Century Quest for Feminism and the Global Urban International Journal for Urban and Regional Research. 40:1 (2016): 219-227.
Roy A (2016) Who’s Afraid of Postcolonial Theory? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 40(1): 200–209.
Yeginsu C (2018) U.K Appoints a Minister for Loneliness In The New York Times. Available here.
Shannon Clarke is a doctoral student at Queen’s University in Canada, researching Caribbean diaspora and the right to the city. She lives in Toronto.