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rom the constellation of fast paced images, scenes, and sounds that bombard the senses, to the palimpsests of past lifeworlds that permeate the layered architectural and material form, to the shards and pieces of things scattered about sites where either construction or collapse take place, cities can often be experienced through spatial, temporal, material, and biographical fragments. Colin McFarlane’s recent book, Fragments of the City: Making and Remaking Urban Worlds (2021), invites readers to dwell on diverse literal and figurative fragments, as a way to theorise but also see and feel urban worlds. The book is at once serious and playful. It acknowledges and sits with troubled times, while elevating creative expressions of hope to imagine cities otherwise, inviting both an analytical and meditative reading.
I found this book both challenging and a joy to read – challenging because its choppy structure defies the conventions of most academic writing and trying to trace the correspondences between one chapter and the next was unobvious; ‘a joy’ because of precisely that! It is refreshingly experimental, and incisively clear in its prose. It plays with several registers of writing and a mix of methods, curating an assemblage of theoretical interventions, thick ethnographic description, and reflective writing. It engages with well-established and cutting edge scholarship in cognate disciplines focused on the urban, and with a range of sources in the humanities, the arts and activist scholarship.
Despite (or precisely because of) its seemingly patchwork organisation, the book anchors itself firmly within a well stated aim - to bring ideas and scenes from different places in conversation with one another as a way of seeing the urban world, moving (as McFarlane explains) ‘between meta narrative and local specificities’ (227). It offers a kind of kaleidoscopic effect presenting a mix of elements, situations, and scales - readers are taken along walk-abouts along streetscapes where the granularity of city-life hits the sense, and pages later oriented towards the aerial views to consider wider dynamics of uneven urbanism or long-standing injustices at play.
As the book moves across and blurs the boundaries between writing that reports on formal research findings, reflections on more casual walk-abouts at the interstices of travels, and auto-biographical interludes, different temporalities and styles of empirical engagement give way to diverse interpretations of fragments - as material, as politics, as knowledge, as performance. All the while, reflections about what is there, what was once, and what might be, are poignantly interwoven into the writing. Materials and knowledges (64) are evoked as physical emblems of city making and remaking, while absences of past material forms turn into a storied memory. Traces of the past connect persuasively to, and dramatize the complexities of, wider debates on urban “renewal” (and working class removal, to echo James Baldwin).
I was struck by the first auto-biographical interlude, ‘The Gap’- which offers a personal story about the Pollok housing estate in Glasgow that no longer stands, ‘all that vibrant activity that no longer has a territory’ (77). And at the same time, remembering that ‘activity’ and its territory connects the early part of the book to the author’s own lived experience, giving personal meaning to the wider effects of austerity and under-investment on the eventual demolition of certain post-war social housing estates in under-served neighbourhoods. Here McFarlane’s decision to write himself in is effectively done, and contrasts with other passages of the book where he seems to deliberately write himself out. These moments of writing in and writing out reflect dilemmas facing all urban researchers – and perhaps navigating urban worlds through fragments brings in sharper relief the entanglements of the personal, methodological, and intellectual. In this sense, the book serves as a great companion text.
The book stretches the imagination and blurs conventional binaries – moving between Mumbai, Hong Kong, Kampala, Berlin, New York, Glasgow pointing to some of the discarded, forgotten, and incomplete corners of these cities and their untold stories: pit latrines and a dumpsite in Mumbai, a demolished housing estate in Glasgow, the “textures and intensities” (192) of a seemingly chaotic but incredibly organised urban market in Hong Kong, and the Kampala art exhibits telling stories about everyday life in the city. It is poetic to go from crude fragmented materialities of the city to the speculative registers of artwork fragments. This work-play of thinking across places and ideas offers a kind of acceptance that understanding is always partial and comes in pieces, but that working with these fragments is simultaneously worth doing and troubling (Thieme 2021), and involves working with a sense of unknowability, or what Glissant (1997) calls opacity.
Throughout the book, thinking through fragments brings affective and intellectual proximity between seemingly disparate themes, topics, and lifeworlds. For example, the connection between a dumpsite in Mumbai and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades, reminds the reader that “rags and refuse” (87) have perhaps always been lenses through which urban modernity might be viewed, deconstructed, and called out for its contradictions (Moore 2009), a counter-narrative to the mirage of progress and coherence. Similarly, the power of “excremental politics” (Chalfin 2014) evoked in McFarlane’s writing of the Cape Town “poo wars” is all the more impactful when considered alongside the story of Noah Purifoy’s Assemblage Sculpture of “Junk Art” in the 1960’s exhibit. The book’s continual return to both themes of waste and the role of art in elevating the value of waste serves as an effective narrative arc that entangles the discarded and the sublime, the violent and the aesthetic. This becomes a compelling way of thinking about the drama and possibility inherent in broken urban worlds (Jackson 2014) – for fragments have long served as tools for representing urban destruction, decay, generation, play, and creativity.
As readers, we are able to jump in and out of different scenes, not only as “entry points into the urban world” (xix), but also as jumping off points into our own urban worlds of ethnographic or lived experience. As the book brings different ideas, scenes and places in conversation with one another, it contributes to an exciting genre of scholarship that evokes and moves between different scales to circumvent normative academic knowledge production – instead producing texts that move between the story, the piece, the neighbourhood, the object, the memory, the creative representation (see also McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories (2021), which explores diverse anti-colonial methodologies and genres of story-telling). A plurality of visual and material forms are depicted, from the vertical to horizontal, the visible to the invisible, the remembered to the forgotten, the present to the long gone. And perhaps because the book never stays fixed on any one scene or story, the reader pauses to sit with each vignette, making associations with their own research, reading, biographies.
Ultimately, this book raises questions about what happens when people move across cities and between them, the associations made between one place and another, the echoes of elsewheres recognised in unfamiliar spaces. The unstated codes of conduct that people learn and reproduce, or disrupt and circumvent, appear not as long-form manuals for how to be in a city (as McFarlane’s earlier work on learning the city shows), but instead through fragments of knowledge acquired and shared. If the urban is simultaneously in a continual state of incompletion but also a dense microcosm of our damaged planet, living and navigating cityscapes through fragments can become a way of making sense of one’s surroundings, but also a way of sensing the various fragments of material and affective interdependence at stake (Tsing et al 2017). Could thinking through fragments, offer a way of engaging in, as Tsing et al call it, “the art of noticing productive crossings” and working through the “conditions of liveability” in broken urban worlds (2017: 4-5)? I wonder then what potential policy implications might emerge from bringing 'fragment thinking' in conversation with practitioners and more-than-academic conversations concerned with city futures.
Chalfin B (2014) Public things, excremental politics, and the infrastructure of bare life in Ghana’s city of Tema, American Ethnologist, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 92–109 .
Glissant E (1997) Poetics of Relation (originally published in French in 1990). University of Michigan: Michigan.
Jackson S J (2014) Rethinking repair. In T Gillespie, P J Boczkowski and K A Foot (eds) Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (pp 221–240). Cam- bridge: MIT Press
McFarlane C (2011) Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
McKittrick K (2021) Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke University Press: NC.
Moore S (2009) The Excess of Modernity: Garbage Politics in Oaxaca, Mexico, The Professional Geographer 61(4): 426–37.
Tsing AH Swanson, E Gan and N Budandt (2017) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Minnesota University Press.
Thieme T (2021) Beyond repair: Staying with breakdown in the interstices. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Tatiana Thieme is an Associate Professor in Geography at University College London. Her work focuses on everyday labour, material, and identity politics in precarious urban environments.