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A book called “European Cities. Modernity, Race and Colonialism” captures the tensions it addresses as early as in its title. While scholars critical of Eurocentrism might at first scoff at yet another book on the European city, both the link to race and colonialism and the use of the plural “cities” in the subtitle quickly reveal the radical project on which the volume embarks instead: the repeatedly invoked search for “geohistorical categories for a non-imperial world”, (Coronil 1996: 52) a goal initially formulated by Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil in the subtitle of his acclaimed 1996 article “Beyond Occidentalism. Toward Nonimperial Geohistorical Categories”.
The volume delivers on its promise by staying true to all of the above emphases – and then some. One central means of doing so is by consistently pluralizing theoretical categories commonly employed in the singular. This is apparent in the use of “cities” in the title, through the detailed exploration of European “urbanities” in the introduction, and up to the pluralization of the very understanding of European cities by zooming in on locales in the European South and East, on the East in the West (of Germany), and on the Europeanness of a former colonial metropole (Buenos Aires). Through this implicit centering of the peripheries (pun intended), the volume goes beyond the need to not essentialize Europe or the urban. It is instead premised on the radical dismantling of the hyperreal ideal-type of the European city – as extensively theorized in Weberian models of the Occidental city, bequeathed to several generations of urban sociologists, and one that the editors refer to as the European City Model (ECM).
Key to this model’s foundation is the separation of the city from the countryside. Only that the city in Weber’s analyses is an Occidental city modeled after Italian city states, while the countryside is reduced to a residual category, the nameless non-city. The resulting binary opposition contrasts a metonymical West to an undifferentiated Rest – with momentous consequences for how both were subsequently theorized in the social sciences, and for Occidentalist understandings of modernity to this day. Ha and Picker’s dissection of this artificial separation allows us to see that, rather than opposite ends of a continuum ranging from tradition (associated with the village, the periphery, and the past) to modernity (associated with city, the present, and core power), both the rural and the urban are inherent to and heirs of imperial, colonial and post imperial/postcolonial matrices of power and of the particular configurations of national spaces derived from them. On a conceptual level, therefore, our understandings of these concepts are shaped by power/knowledge mechanisms that also structure fundamental hierarchies of class, gender, race, religion, and nation and create artificial binaries. On the other hand, as variegated and concrete historical phenomena, both the rural and the urban have been configured by global asymmetries of power, uneven processes of socio-economic development, and the struggles for rights of those excluded and racialized from either context, as several chapters in the volume make clear.
Given the centrality of the search for nonimperial categories for the project this volume represents, the fact that the main category that Coronil offered in his initial formulation, “Occidentalism”, is not employed or discussed anywhere in the book is noteworthy. A simple reason for the editors’ choice to retain “Eurocentrism” instead might be its far more common use in the literature on race and colonialism – including in decolonial literature – as compared to the term coined by Coronil and further developed by Walter Mignolo (2000). Yet isn’t the European City Model an Occidental City Model par excellence? Coronil defined Occidentalism as “the expression of a constitutive relationship between Western representations of cultural difference and worldwide Western dominance” and as “a style of representation that produces polarized and hierarchical conceptions of the West and its Others and makes them central figures in accounts of global and local histories” (Coronil 1996: 57). As such, Coronil stressed, Occidentalism does not represent the counterpart of Orientalism, but its precondition, a discourse from and about the West that sets the stage for discourses about the West’s Other(s) – not only for Orientalism, but also for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and sexism in a Western patriarchal mold. Nor is Occidentalism, I would add, a mere synonym for Eurocentrism, since it did not emerge throughout Europe. Occidentalism emerged as a discourse from and about the hegemonic Western European colonial powers that conquered and raided the Americas and trafficked Africans into slavery for the plantation economy and that increasingly defined themselves as a “heroic” Europe, which had pioneered modernity. In time, this focus relegated the early colonial powers, Spain and Portugal, to a lesser, “decadent” Europe, while large parts of the European East, which had lost out of colonial possessions overseas, became the “epigonal Europe” perpetually trying to catch up (Boatcă 2021). Occidentalism thus gradually constructed and downgraded both European and non-European Others to the extent that their “Westernness”, that is, their Occidentality, had become questionable in a given historical and geopolitical context – be it as decline from hegemony, as imputed, “lesser” whiteness, as “lesser” Christianity, as the “wrong” religion altogether, or as insufficient modernity.
Whether termed Eurocentrism or Occidentalism, the geoculture of the modern/colonial world-system has shaped imaginaries of the urban to the extent that, for instance, Buenos Aires elites debating the future of the city in the latter half of the twentieth century could hardly think outside of the confines of what Antonio Carbone (2022: 83) calls a “’hyperreal’ European urban modernity,” the almost unchallenged Western model to be followed. Yet, in the context of this volume, viewing the South American metropole as a European city is not a compromise, and Buenos Aires is not an exception in an otherwise “truly” European array of cities the collection foregrounds. Rather, it is one of several instances that “open up a multiplicity of venues for reflexive, critical and global perspectives on urban Europe” (Carbone 2022: 14), as the editors put it in the introduction. Complementary analyses such as Łukasz Stanek’s monograph on the collaboration of architects and construction companies from state socialist European East with those in Lagos, Accra, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City during the Cold War (Stanek 2020) immediately come to mind. So does the need to complicate the European-colony dyad by means of “other Europes” in the East of the continent and their connections with and impact on the Global South – by no means devoid of Occidentalist hierarchies and power relations, as Trzecziak and Peters demonstrate in their own chapter.
When, therefore, in the coda to the volume, AbdouMaliq Simone (2022: 257-258) draws attention to the fact that it is “nearly impossible to imagine what European cities would be without blackness” and that “whiteness itself is inevitably destined to implode,” more pieces of the puzzle resulting from the European City Model and its critiques throughout the volume fall into place, opening up new venues for reflection: Is Fort-de-France in France’s overseas territory of Martinique a Caribbean capital, or, as Tania Mancheno’s chapter shows following Fanon, so closely intertwined with the European white city as to be itself a European city in Caribbean Europe (Boatcă 2018, 2021)? And isn’t the blackness of the populations in Europe’s Caribbean and Indian Ocean territories already what makes the whiteness of the European City model implode? Or isn’t the Muslim population of France’s newest overseas department Mayotte what makes Europe’s alleged Christianity implode – provided we take into account “the colonial present and presence” (Ha and Picker, 2022: 17) as evidenced in colonial capitals, racially segregated megacities, and forgotten Europes today? Whether such political, racial and geopolitical implosion amounts to, as Azarmandi and Rexhepi suggest in their chapter, pushing Europe “off the cliff”, at least conceptually and epistemically, whether it represents a more radical provincialization than Chakrabarty proposed it, or whether it is one way to decolonial reparations under ongoing colonial rule is an open question.
Boatcă M (2018) Caribbean Europe. Out of Sight, Out of Mind?. In: Reiter B (ed) Constructing the Pluriverse. The Geopolitics of Knowledge. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.197-219.
Boatcă M (2021) Thinking Europe Otherwise. Lessons from the Caribbean. Current Sociology 21(3): 389-414.
Coronil F (1996) Beyond Occidentalism: Toward Nonimperial Geohistorical Categories. Cultural Anthropology 11(1): 51–87.
Mignolo W D (2000) Local histories - global designs. Coloniality, subaltern knowledges, and border thinking. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Stanek Ł (2020) Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology and Head of School of the Global Studies Programme at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She has published widely on world-systems analysis, decolonial perspectives on global inequalities, gender and citizenship in modernity/coloniality, and the geopolitics of knowledge in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Together with Anca Parvulescu (Washington University, USA), she has recently co-authored Creolizing the Modern. Transylvania Across Empires (Cornell UP 2022), which has received the René Wellek Prize for best monograph from the American Comparative Literature Association and the Barrington Moore Award for Best Book in Comparative and Historical Sociology from the American Sociological Association in 2023.