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AbdouMaliq Simone is an urbanist whose work explores the spatial and social compositions of urban regions, the production of everyday life for urban majorities, and the lives of Muslim working-class residents. Currently a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity, and a Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, he is the author of For the City Yet to Come: Changing Urban Life in Four African Cities (Duke University Press, 2004), City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads (Routledge, 2009) and Jakarta, Drawing the City Near (Minnesota, 2014). His latest manuscript, Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance from an Urban South (2018) brings together a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge University in 2017. Working through a deep engagement with post- colonial studies and Black thought, Improvised Lives traces “rhythms of endurance” throughout the urban South—the movements, flows, and iterations that “carry bodies forward and back between destinations that are altered in each approach, each retreat” (10). Within this collection the heterogenous and ordinary forms of habitation and provisioning taking place throughout districts of the urban South are understood as a sort of “ensemble work.” Here, the space of the “uninhabitable” becomes a compass for the multitude of practices, desires, relations, failures, making and meanings of home, and ways of being that comprise urban worlds.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with AbdouMaliq Simone about Improvised Lives. What follows is an edited version of a wide-ranging conversation on the politics of relationality, everyday urban life, Black thought, and many things in between.
Asha Best (AB): One thing I was struck by within your book is how you move between all of these different cities. At some point we’re in Freetown, we’re in Jakarta, we’re in Chicago, we’re in Cairo, we’re in Delhi, but we’re not necessarily thinking about an ethnography or about the particularities of life in each city, or about articulation, but about “the possibilities of opacity” (44) and how we might work with the opaque. So, can you talk a little bit more about how you are thinking and working through the lens of opacity within this book project?
AbdouMaliq Simone (AMS): Yeah. I mean… theoretically […] practically comes from [Édouard] Glissant and the notion of the right to opacity. And I’m interested in it at this very particular moment within sort of urban conceptions where the comparative is very much on people’s minds and in people’s practices. I guess what I’m considering here is my own ambivalence around notions of relationality, and the way in which the situation of what I call, oftentimes, the majority—that oscillating intermixture of those who at one time or another might be considered “poor”, “working class”, “lumpen”, or “barely middle class”—experience a critical moment in terms of what it means to operate collectively…and the kinds of logics and the kinds of practices that were very much inherent in their capacity to construct urban spaces that worked for them in some way. And, at the heart of those practices, was of course a kind of economy of relationality, an economy of relations, a sense of how you combine and put together different kinds of practices, different kinds of built environments, different kinds of capacities, different kinds of sensibilities, different kinds of positionalities in relationship to the larger city and the larger world as itself the kind of underpinning, the kind of platform through which you elaborate both livelihood and a sense of life. And so, these relationalities were very critical in terms of the capacity of the majority to have a place in a usually volatile and uncertain relationship with formal institutional life and the changing macroeconomic structures of urbanization processes in which they were ensconced. And although, I continue to see these kinds of capacities as valuable, it seems to me that the very logics of this capacity are being expropriated or being literally stolen by operations of power and new modes of capital accumulation, which themselves place such kinds of relationalities at the center of their own capacity to endure. And so, then it seems to me that the entire notion of a kind of relationality is something that is increasingly problematic in some way. And for me, then, the notion of opacity is a way of which to circumvent the constant need to articulate, to express, to announce, to iterate a sense of desire, to make oneself known in some way.
And so how do you… how are you able to continue to be able to experiment with ways of being together within urban contexts when the capacity to monitor and track those kinds of experiments and to expropriate the very logics of them, in terms of power relations and apparatuses of rule that are then turned against you, the majority, in ways that you can continue to have those kinds of spaces without looking as if you’re doing that? That is, rehearsals for ways of being together, rehearsals for ways of being productive, and generating forms of social life, which in some ways can run against the grain of this individuating impulse that seems to be dominant. So, opacity for me, is the kind of way in which [to think about] what kinds of forms, what kinds of modalities, are available for being together that don’t look as if they’re rehearsals for being together.
And this is why I’ve been thinking about particular aspects of the built environment which seem to be, on one hand, a kind of intensive homogenization of everyday social life. You know, like big superblocks…the big… massive outlay of so-called affordable, vertical housing that is taking place amongst so many cities everywhere. And so, you have a kind of relocation of the so-called popular neighborhoods within these kinds of faceless homogenizing contexts—which, on the one hand, seem to tie up households into long periods of debt within built environments that may last perhaps a decade or slightly more under circumstances where it’s not clear exactly what it is that you’re buying. Because, oftentimes, certificates of ownership are not forthcoming, and within governance structures where you have a kind of dictatorship of the developer, where in some ways the official and conventional mechanisms of urban governance are times not even allowed entry. So I was interested in looking at these spaces and people living there as a way to see if there was something else. And that something else at times—and I’m not quite sure why at times, and not others—produces a kind of…within this kind of generic space… a kind of an environment where no matter who you are and what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to think about doing or what your livelihood is, somehow is capable of holding this, capable of … within a kind of compressed situation where the mode of life is not one of apparent differentiation, it’s not one of about a kind of choreography of highly visible differences, but rather a kind of environment in which seems to be able to hold, and to absorb, almost anything that is brought to it. And that anything could be various ways of financing—simply buying a place. Holding all the kinds of small kinds of adaptations and revisions on the physical infrastructure of the place which you buy. For example, you know, there’re extended families that will buy a whole floor in a building. So, they continue to live and operate with each other. They can’t—because many of these buildings are pre-fabricated—you can’t really make that many alterations. But yet, the alterations take place somehow through these kinds of recalibrations of living space. So, I was interested in then the kind of superblock as a kind of environment of opacity, because it doesn’t, it doesn’t show back…it doesn’t reflect back all that takes place within it. And because it doesn’t reflect back, it provides residents a context at times for all different kinds of deliberations with each other that are not so much…geared toward creating a place. Not so much geared to creating a kind of territory of the kind of popular territory of the past, but rather a platform through which households and individuals can venture out in the larger urban space, but yet be informed by the kinds of experiences of others who are doing the same thing. So, there’s a kind of mutual care taking, a kind of explicit mutual nurturance that takes place, but it’s not instantiated within that territory itself. It reflects itself in the kinds of itineraries, the kinds of confidence, the kinds of circulations that it enables amongst those that reside there. So, in some ways that’s, that’s also part of the notion of opacity.
And, also, the notion of opacity in terms of the refusal to relate. That it’s, in other words that, that somehow when we think about the contiguities within urban space, the side by side, the intensive proximities of different things…somehow that proximity oftentimes demands a sense of articulation, a sense of relationship. But why? Why is it necessary that somehow things have to be folded within a kind of system that provides a kind of code and grammar and vernacular in ways of defining what those relationships are? What about that kind of unfolding into the sort of incessant relationality? Because, in some ways, it generates a certain sense of insufficiency. It generates a kind of… it forecloses possibilities of what things could be, or what might be taking place. For example, the way, the way in which certain instantiations of Blackness have been, have been deployed as a kind of code of relationality, a kind of logistics, a kind of grammar of articulation that, in some ways, makes things relate in ways that it might necessarily have to. So, here then, opacity becomes a kind of resistance of this sort of insistent relationality… So, I guess that’s, in some sense, what some of my interests are around the notion of the opaque and of opacity.
AB: There’s so much there that’s related to my next question. (And, at some point, I want to come back to the question of refusal because I was trying to articulate a question around it and there are so many bits about refusals within the book…I really struggled to articulate the right question, but I think I’m coming towards it now that you’re talking about the refusal to relate.) But in some of what you were just talking about, in terms of opacity, I heard some bits about temporality…In the framing in your book, in exploring “rhythms of endurance,” there is a return to “the break,” and “the hold”—which I think is not just a way of invoking black music, but really a way of taking up the intimacies of black urban life by thinking with, learning from, black aesthetic traditions. So there’s this beautiful line in the book where you write about how rhythms of endurance don’t always operate through grammars of “freedom” and “resistance,” and you say that “a more expansive notion of solidity might be required, solid not like the flesh, but like a beat.” (127) So, there’s this ongoing dialogue, and I think deep engagement with the work of folks like Fred Moten, I’m seeing Katherine McKittrick, and Alex Weheliye, Kodwo Eshun and others. Can you talk about how Black aesthetics function as a sort of refrain for this book? But also the potential for Black thought as a refrain for urban theory more broadly?
AMS: I’ve learned a lot from Black thought in terms of trying to understand better the kinds of ambivalences, the alterations, the oscillations, that take place within the fields in which I have lived and worked for a long time. And it seems to me that that thought in its various manifestations—and, of course, there are many different manifestations amongst today’s, you know, predominant Black thinkers—but trying to find a way to conceptualize and to feel about the kinds of oscillations that I experience in these fields… I mean just in the sense that the way in which the cities I’ve worked with have always instituted this kind of rough cut, you know, this basic, spatial divide where you evict those that are not deemed eligible for being part of the city. But, yet, if the city is the kind of context or the platform through which a notion of the human, as that which embodies a sense of self-will and of freedom and who operates in terms of its own furtherance—that that capacity of self-reflection as an integral part of what is the urban subject depends upon those that are deemed not eligible for that kind of position. But yet, we need them close in order for you to continuously remind yourself of what it is that you are. And so there’s this kind of play of nearness and, and farness. So, that which is deemed Black, which is something which is potentially generalizable across a lot of different urban situations that—if that has to be kept away and reduced to nothing, or reduced to something which is not eligible to be part of the city, but yet, kept close by…at the same time, that which is, in a sense evicted from the city, those that define what the city is no longer then have the capacity to define that which is evicted. So, in some sense, if you’re relegating that to which is outside to something that is not a territory, not a world, not a subject, but as a kind of status of nothingness, then you don’t know what that nothingness is. And if you don’t know what that nothingness is, that nothingness then can be anything whatsoever in a fundamental way. And so, you have always this kind of play where those that were relegated to the Black city, or to the periphery, were always seen as that which is ineligible, but that which also has inordinate capacities that you don’t have. So, there’s always this kind of sense of nearness and farness. There’s this encumbrance that Blackness has, which is in some sense to be the virtuality capable of producing anything, and also being the embodiment of nothing. And, in a way the both/and of that kind of position, and its constantly oscillating geographies of being both near and far, have always had impact then on how everyday residents of the Black city have had to make, quite concretely, a life. And so, in some ways how do you…how do you do that? How is that kind of doubleness then lived?
So, if you take Moten’s notion of the noncontractual—well the noncontractual shows up as a critical aspect of the way in which urban spaces have been auto-constructed by the majority that has been relegated to the outside of the city, has been able to in some ways make a life. That is what’s been—and I’ve seen this, I’ve seen this in so many contexts in which I worked—is that of course you have rules and you have codes and you have forms and you have hierarchies and you have definable and discernible organizations and institutions. But, in some ways, these are just in some ways tropes, you know, that they’re at the surface of…they’re sort of organizing points for what is really a kind of noncontractual sociality that predominates the ways in which people circulate through each other’s lives. For at the heart of “majority” district economic life, it is not a relationship between discernible households, genders, or spaces that are important. Rather it is how particular territories of operation are constructed that enable the familiar forms of everyday social life to act differently. It is the creation of new entities that do not so much replace families, neighbors, authorities, and so forth as everyday “descriptors”, but continuously recombine them into experimental figures of both sense and action. Therefore, you have the possibility of generating a sociality that can be bounded and framed by the particular kinds of vernaculars and codes of what we can consider to be sociality. So, in some ways this is a kind of vital dynamic. But then what happens? Again, the question is what happens then, when that kind of noncontractual, excessive, surplus generating forms of assemblage, forms of gathering, forms of interpenetration, forms of economy, forms of life circulating through each other, become available to become the kinds of operating codes of urban development and urban rule. So, then that other element of a population which is scrutinized to death, which is in some ways confined and territorialized and compartmentalized, whose mobility is extremely limited, who become object of knowledge of all kinds, of all kinds of scrutiny and surveillance—that also then is a kind of part of that kind of both/andness—it is the other element of that both/andness. So, you have a kind of noncontractual generativity that is lived always simultaneously with your being part of a population where it is being in some ways, literally scrutinized to death…which can be in some sense converted into anything, into any kind of use.
…That doubleness…seems to me in its simultaneity punctuated by a kind of rhythm, a kind of rhythmic alteration. And how you move rhythmically to alter that up, and how to in some ways live within the break between those kinds of, that kind of doubleness. And so, in some ways to try to take the way in which Black thought has attempted to account for the endurance of Black urban life, for a variety of different situations, seems to me really valuable in terms of thinking through the ways in which the urban majority within the South—if there is such a thing as the South anymore—attempt to try to live rhythmically through the need to continue to generate forms of collaboration, forms of relationality, because you can’t go it alone, but who are you gonna go with and who are you gonna do it with, and under what circumstances and for what purposes, and for what objectives, and how much are you able to demonstrate and show that? But yet you’re living within an urban context where affect has become real estate…where economy is subject to, in some sense, financialization. Because if the derivative is this sort of predominant tool of rule in some way, in that it posits a kind of intimate relationality, but within the form of a contract, this is in some sense a kind of exemplary devise by which…the urban space is ruled, and which is capable of turning lifetimes and life experiences into derivatives, but also it’s the kind, through the instrument of a contract, then, in some ways…the question is what is the majority to do? How are they to in some sense live from now on, from now on in? And in some ways…I mean, I’m going on and on but basically the importance of Black thought, as an urbanist, has been in…it’s amazingly generative ability to account for almost impossible things to think, is able to provide, I think some important ideas about what it means to be urban at this particular point in time. Now, what does this mean for the concrete lives and bodies of actual Black residents in the world? I mean, that’s yet another story, which I don’t feel equipped to really talk about a lot, you know. But yeah this is my response to that question I think.
AB: You write that, “while so much in urban life repeats the flirtations with catastrophe, pockets of indeterminacy, rest, and care are regenerated.” (39) And it made me think, not only about what you later describe as these practices of care—of rogue care—within the various districts that you map throughout the book, but about the language of crisis and how the catastrophic often frames Black life, and it often frames the sort of subjects—working class, working poor, various locations, social and political and practices—that are essential to your work. So there’s a way that I see that Black life is always framed as being proximate to the catastrophic …can you talk about how you think about these moments of care, and rest, and intimacy and how this sort of “deep relationality” and provisioning that makes this series of lectures, for me, so robust? Can you talk about how those moments can help us to rethink how we understand both real and imagined catastrophe and its relationship to the urban?
AMS: …It’s always a difficult line to walk in terms of…I mean how do you find ways of valorizing the generativity of lives that live under such precarious circumstances without making it seem as if you are romanticizing those capacities or depreciating the difficulties, you know, of which they face? And sometimes it’s, in some ways, the kind of decision without justification in a way, decision without legitimacy, to simply say that yes, no matter how difficult this circumstance may be, there is a capacity to generate something, to create something perhaps unprecedented that’s not simply a kind of compensation for the difficulties of survival… or to get bogged in that, you know, when hardship comes it brings out the best in the human, you know, that no matter how difficult it is humans still are resilient enough to demonstrate a sense of care and concern—I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go there either.
And I don’t necessarily want to go either to…I mean, for some years now, I’ve heard often particularly amongst, amongst youth—from São Paulo to Johannesburg to Lagos to—that the sense that we don’t care. We’re not asking to survive. We don’t care if we survive or not. We’re indifferent to it. So, when does indifference to one’s survival become something that’s in/different? That is, a kind of insistence to remain… incomplete, in/different. Not, not complete. Not yet, captured. Not yet caught. Not yet done. Not yet. And it seems to me that somehow some of these, the youth that I hear express this are walking that line between indifference and in/different. That you don’t have the words, you don’t have the concepts to basically apprehend what it is that we experience. That right now, in the end, we retain the right to talk about and conceptualize our own experience of things, which is not yours. And no matter how—whether we are killed tomorrow or not—we retain that kind of right. We retain that kind of space to do that.
…Clearly there are several things […]I mean urban life within urban core, popular, poor and working class districts are under inordinate pressures. There’s too many demands, too much crowded space in terms of things to do for livelihood, too many pressures on people to respond and to lend a hand, the kinds of care taking systems are really overwhelmed in many contexts. That’s clear.
But yet, there’s also a sense too that, that it just requires more. Let me see how to put this… there’s also within this a willingness not to simply rely upon all that’s come before. There’s a willingness not to reiterate the kind of familiar practices and tropes through which people try to understand their situations. There’s a sense of not…don’t show your cards right away. Don’t commit yourself to being one particular version of yourself—don’t think that this is the only thing. There’s a willingness to in some sense to risk, to try different things, without necessarily needing for the results to come, in some sense, right away. For example, there are youth that may have shared first grade with each other. And now, they’re in their 30s. The only thing they have in common was that they were in 1st grade together. And they’ve been through really difficult forms of factory exploitation, some of them have managed to secure some kind of full-time work that they hold onto. Others don’t. But they, you know, there may be 30, 35 people, but they check in with each other every day, through WhatsApp, through Facebook. They try to make sure that they’re doing alright and, if they’re not doing alright, what is it that we can do now to get you through to next week, or to next month. There’s, there’s a kind of re-piecing together the kinds of territories of care. So, it may no longer be within the particular place. It may no longer be, you know…amongst people who have really well elaborated, deeply explored histories with each other. But somehow there are the kind of engendering of different kinds of bands on the run in some way. Always in motion, always circulating, trying to find a way to keep abreast of all the different changes, which they don’t completely understand, which they know that are happening around them, and who operate in some way collectively that is not family, which is not necessarily friendship network, which is not extended family, which is not gang, which is not, which is something else. Which is something else, which many of them can’t quite put their finger on, but they’re not so interested in trying to define it, because it continually re-elaborates itself through a kind of practice of paying attention to each other and taking each other seriously and availing what kind of assistance that they can. Even though one sees the kinds of dissipation of many neighborhood networks, extended family systems, people living in more isolated fragmented situations, there are provisionally these kinds of re-piecing of some kind of modality through which mutual witnessing and care is possible. I don’t know what we call these things. I’m not quitre sure what kind of history they’re able to accumulate. I’m not even quite sure what it is exactly that they’re able to do concretely, but they are there. And so I think that that’s… important.
At this same time are those that simply… they dig in. They are adamant. They say, you know, we have institutions that are long lasting in this particular area. And let’s try to find ways to help them to continue. And so, there are these sort of more normative, familiar, professions of commitment and people trying to do things. So again, there’s this kind of notion of doubleness that in some ways there are very critical kinds of situations that many urban residents are indeed facing […] In many urban contexts you have people that have left the urban core because they’re priced out of it. Or they’re looking for something more affordable. Or they’re looking for new opportunities and they move to the periphery, to the hinterlands, and there it’s increasingly difficult to tell where things are going because you have… all these strange contiguities of built environments and you don’t know where things are headed, because there are so many actors, even if they’re applying the same kind of logics, of sort of neoliberal development, there are so many of them. And so many who have deep capacities and scales that you create a kind of atmosphere where it’s not really clear where things are going. And, you have two things, you have two trends. One is highly defensive maneuvers where people in some sense try to coalesce and then build walls around themselves. And then there are others that, in some sense, value what they talk about as the need for maximum exposure. A maximum exposure risking vulnerability to things that are much beyond their control, but a sense of the maximum exposure to the surrounds, you know, to not foreclose things. To… pay attention to everything that’s around them, and to not act too quickly and… within that kind of sensibility what does it mean to enjoin with others? And so, I’ve seen these kinds of situations where people will gather and they will simply, you know, they won’t argue about…they won’t argue about their different interpretations about what’s happening to them, but it will be much more of a sense of a refrain. They’ll reiterate well over there is this thing. Over there is that factory. Over there still is this farm. And over there these things are happening. And over, there a kind of endless generation of details and a kind of refrain which keeps things open, which keeps them somehow assembled in a way which doesn’t rule anything out. So, these things happen simultaneously, you know both a kind of extensive openness and also closure. And whether or not this is a response, these are sort of differentiated responses to crisis, I’m not sure. But it seems that, if there is such a kind of doubleness of response, then it’s difficult to then think simply univocally in terms of a kind of catastrophe under way.
AB: So, I want to go back to the question of refusal, which I’m still…forming. I’m gonna form it as I say it, but you have this line in the book, when you’re talking about urban politics and how a sort of vision of urban politics, has to refuse inhabitation in its present terms. And I’ve been really just thinking about what that vision looks like. What does it look like for you? What does it look like on the ground? And is it related to the very things that you’ve been talking about…this doubleness? So, yeah, if you could unpack that vision of refusing inhabitation in its present forms? And I’m sorry if that’s sort of a muddy question.
AMS: No, no, no. Let me go back. I guess I’m sorry to go back to the…one example I gave before, but…it again has to do with… you know, at first I was, puzzled at times when many households that I knew who, you know, had spent a long period of time within sort of popular neighborhoods building things with other people both literally in terms of physical infrastructure and also ways of life…that were generative of their own livelihoods. And, that when they would sell or they would move and they would move into huge apartment buildings oftentimes at a distance from the city, and under uncertain circumstances, I always thought well why are you doing this? You’re sort of shooting yourself in the foot. You’re undermining the very thing that got you to be middle class in the first place. So, why are you, why are you jettisoning this at this particular time? So, I always was puzzled by this.
But the more that I sort of try to understand their subsequent lives (again within these kinds of faceless seemingly homogenous environments) there is a kind of again doubleness of the notion of the hold here. Because, in some ways, the changes under…if you try to understand what’s happening to you, what do you pay attention to? When people would talk about this stuff there’s too much to pay attention to—we don’t know what to pay attention to. There’s so many factors that are at work that could, that are impacting on what we experience. How do we attempt to deal with these things, it’s simply too much? And so, cognitively we can only pay attention to a certain amount of things in terms of being able then to use this in order to make decisions about what we’re able to do. So, again I think in some ways that these environments where they end up, these kinds of metal box, become a kind of hold… a kind of holding pattern. They don’t see this… they don’t see these places as the destination. They see themselves occupying a moment of provisionality. And a moment of provisionality that is best lived through an environment, which they see as capable of holding all of the different kinds of forces that they see themselves confronted with in a way that is more effective than the kinds of neighborhoods they came from. That somehow those neighborhoods that they came from were being asked to…where everyone was asked to be doing so much effort and so much labor just to keep things afloat, just to keep the ways of living that they were used to afloat. And they didn’t have time for anything else. And it was too much. And so the move to these kinds of new environments was into an environment capable of holding all kinds of different things. All different kinds of people, all different kinds of forces, all different kinds of money, all different kinds of tendencies and to hold off, to hold off the foreclosure of somehow that they will…that this was their destination for sure. So, in some sense the refusal of particular modes of inhabitation may have something to do with this dual notion of the hold as something that is able to again hold a lot of different kinds of projections but not yet reflect back to the world, the efficacy of those projections, or the acceptance of those projections, or the internalization of those projections. It doesn’t reflect back. It doesn’t show anything. But at the same time to hold off for the moment being fully incorporated as a kind of…you know, for better or worse, neoliberal subject now dedicated to endless self-improvement in an individuated way of living. So, the refusal may happen in ways that are not clearly associated with refusing.
I mean there are many refusals and many resistances, you know. The refusals of addiction. The refusals of being, of being forcibly moved … or even if, or if forcibly moved refusal to stay put to where one was moved to. I mean, what happens to all of the millions of cheap houses that were built in urban Mexico, you know, 15 years ago which 60% are all now gone. Where did those, where did those people go? Where did residents go? Well, it’s hard to tell. We’re able to know that they were put there, but we’re less able to know where they eventually ended up, if they ended up anywhere or if they in some ways are within circuits of you know, of doubling up, tripling up in different places back in the core. I mean, so there are refusals. There are resistances. And there are, in such instances, too, environments which refuse their inhabitation. After all, developers built these things on the cheap. They were to be turned over to local authorities to administer. The local authorities never really took full control of them or responsibility for them, and these places then didn’t last for even two decades. They are basically destroyed and they housed millions of people. So, where are they now? So, there are environments that have refused the inhabitation of those that came from them. So, all of these refusals are there.
But I guess what I’m also talking about is a kind of…those refusals that on the surface don’t look like… refusal. And what happens? And in what happens, what happens there? It’s not really what you are…you know, it’s really what you’re asking but outside of the kind of resistant politics that I’m sure we’re both familiar with. I’m also thinking too about ways in which refusals are activated, which may not necessarily be so clear. And what do these look like?
You know… I mean what happens when you live, you know, a two-and-a-half hour train ride from the urban core and there’s work for some, but not for most? And then what do you do? […] In Jakarta, the favorite word now is parking. You know, we need a place to park. I need to place to park my 80-year-old mother. I need a place to park my belongings. It’s not about home, it’s about parking. And if you’re parking you are not really investing in the long term. It doesn’t mean that you don’t end up staying where you are for a long time, but you also act as if you are not fully “there.” So inhabiting becomes something different. It’s about your itineraries. It’s about arranging short-term stays. It’s about short-term jobs. It’s about a certain kind of circulation and whether or not this is a refusal or not, it is a mode of existence that is not easily governable within systems that rely upon the notion of emplacement as the kind of mode of governmentality. Okay. So, now we, we shift to targeting. You know, so of course…the modalities of control and policing are, of course, less territorially based. It’s about the proficiency of being able to target people in motion. So, target people on their way somewhere…But even under regimes of targeting, to what extent are there not other—through this kind of sense of mobility—subversions under way at the same time? I mean to prevent being targeted in some ways requires subverting the gaze—and what is the interplay of that? So the dynamics of refusal are multiplicitous and complicated… but in contexts where it looks as if compliance and submission are in place, always to begin to question whether or not it is submission and compliance. Certainly, could be. Certainly, many times it is. But is there something else besides that, that is in some ways operative under certain circumstances and times?
AB: So, I’m interested in the question of how black vernacular urban practices figure not only into urban theory, but also into how we conceptualize and move towards the future of the urban. In the book, you take up the question of futurity, and of black urban futures in a number of ways—from the realities of “capitalist-practiced urbanization” (60) and the sorts of futures that are anticipated within it, to the ways in which poor and working class folks have had to operate within the very experiments and failures of the urban that require their dispossession and perhaps future disappearance. Beyond this, you explore how folks in the South in particular have had to contend with the urban “futures industry” (Eshun 2003, 290), often living with states of “nonarrival” (Cunningham 2017) having to do with neoliberal planning projects and utopian visions of the urban.
And then there is another invocation of the future altogether. You write that “The South that I want to invoke here is a South not so much as a conceptual designation, not so much as a residue of political aspiration or legacy, but something closer to science fiction…not dissimilar to the chronopolitics of the Afrofuturists” (12).
First, what did you mean when you referred to the South as “something closer to science fiction”? Second, how do vernacular urban practices—particular those of the poor and working class—articulate ways of understanding urban futures? So, what are the ways in which Black urbanism, I think holds…I think it holds a conception of the future. But maybe you could…think about this out loud with me?
AMS: Yeah. I mean…within urban theory, at the moment in which the urban South—resoundingly in some ways—announces its own critical contributions through the elaboration of a more incisive urban theory, it in some sense disappears. And, you know, what is that, what is that disappearance? I mean it’s difficult to find continuous… The legacies of colonialism and the endurance of coloniality, the kinds of complexities of developmentalism, the impact of climate [change], all of these things somehow reiterate the importance of the South, but yet conceptually there’s always some sense that it is no longer… no longer there. I mean, what is it? What is it in terms of… a kind of consolidated, univocal space, or even a kind of pluriverse of different multiplicities that have indeed not geographically adhered to the kind of conventional North-South divide? What is it within these kinds of controversial demarcations, you know? Is it just simply a kind of pragmatic invocation? It’s simply one of a sort of geopolitics of different forms of South-South collaborations that, indeed, are quite important and, in significant ways.
So, in some ways, the notion of science fiction is to try to recuperate, or restitute, the South as an important space without necessarily having to seek empirical verification for it within the terms that we know, but at the same time, not to obviate the importance of the empiric altogether—which in some sense science fiction does because it reiterates the importance of science, but not scientism, so science partly as a kind of fiction in pursuit, but with real attainments. So, how might that be then applicable to the endurance of some sense of a South? So, that was just a kind of, it was just a sort of simple point.
But also, there is a way in which—particularly with discourses around the Anthropocene, and the reframing of the human as a kind of destructive geological force—that the South in its most, most stereotypical version and the place of the native, of those that may continue to express a kind of intensive ontological difference, this becomes the location of that ontological difference. And it’s that difference that we need to take advantage of now, in order to save ourselves as a human species. So, the South becomes important to our future…by turning to peoples that basically had no…we saw as having no future…as being relegated to a past. But again, this is a kind of tricky thing. I mean, as, you know, Povenelli (2017) talks about where we only value the native in terms of what he or she was way back then, and don’t see any value in terms of what it is that he or she does within the present. So, again, it re-problematizes the South…so, the South as, again, redemption, you know?
Just in a not dissimilar way that Blackness is often now turned to as redemption, you know, when Spillers (1987) says it wasn’t our job to redeem anything. You know, it wasn’t our job to save anything… She even, back then, anticipates the way in which to kind of turn to Blackness is envisioned as the kind of recuperation of an ability of human life to interweave itself with the world in a way that, you know, white sovereignty was never able to do… So, in some ways, again, there’s too much asked of the South as is too much asked of Blackness in a way. Which, in some ways, the Afrofuturists in some ways anticipate, because, for me, the Afro-future is a way of circumventing all that is asked of Blackness in order to redeem, to recuperate, to heal.
It’s almost…in a way it’s almost like… it’s something… I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like when they asked Derrick May in Berlin, like last year sometime, in this Detroit-Berlin thing they had. And he said something interesting about how Detroit…you know, Detroit really at the turn of the century, not this century, but the turn of the last century, Detroit was as advanced as any American city could conceivably think about being advanced. And of course historically… Detroit, you know, in terms of its intellectual production, you know, not maybe in the academy but within everyday life was in some way unparalleled in the U.S. Its sense of the prophetic, its sense of… its thoughts about science and science fiction. Its thoughts about religion. Its thoughts about outer space. Its thoughts about everyday social life, the way in which residents of Detroit were organizing themselves with each other day-by-day, taking care of business…it was more advanced than any place. Of course, we’ve seen what happens to Detroit over the long period of time. And so, you know, May was sort of saying, you know, that which came out of… with he and Jeff Mills and Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, and Stacey Pullen and Carl Craig, I mean how do you, how do you construct the kind of sound, how do you construct the kind of machine and the kind of sound, which will enable Detroit to endure? I mean, Detroit was already ahead of its time. Detroit was already in the future. And now, that’s the future past. It’s this sort of anterior future, but how do we cultivate a particular kind of enduring sound for all of that? But it’s a sound, of course that their work doesn’t really tell, it doesn’t tell a narrative. You know, it’s devoid of a kind of narrative. It’s just the…it’s the kind of techno. It’s a kind of a… it is a sort of minimalism of composition, relentless, but within that becomes a kind—I think what he was saying is—it becomes a sort of channel of endurance. That is already in the future. Carries us into the future. Without having to show anything else. Without having to tell a specific story. Without having to tell a specific history. It carries that. And so, I think that is one aspect. But also, as I said in the book, that in a way that capitalist practice was in urban life is increasingly contingent upon eventuality, upon the kind of notion of preemption. That is, you know, on the uncertain eventualities of things that are brought in the present as the way of hedging and leveraging possibilities in the now. So, the future’s already in some ways folded into the present as the kind of locus of accumulation in many ways.
I mean I talked to big developers, you know. And, they talk about, we don’t care whether or not this thing is profitable now, we don’t care whether this thing has any use now. Eventually, something will be made of it. Eventually something will happen. We’re not quite sure what it, what it is. But if we don’t do it, someone else will do it. And so, we have to act now. So, acting now already anticipates a kind of uncertain future of possible profitability or advantage or… And it doesn’t matter the kind of space in between. Between now and whenever that then is. And if that, in some ways, if this notion of preemption, of folding the future into the kinds of financial calculations of the present, and if that in some sense largely affects the sort of disposition of land, the disposition of work, then in some ways, it truly is the kind of ethical work of a renegade sociality that in some ways will be able to keep things together. And it is this renegade sociality, which in some ways, has at least been written about more in the context of Black urban life than other places. And, again, this also is a tricky thing, because again it is… one can’t reiterate somehow the very difficult notions that…somehow not to reiterate Blackness as a sort of urban redemption, which it’s not, you know. It doesn’t redeem anything. There’s nothing to be redeemed. It’s just the exigency of the possibility of ongoing experimentation with conditions of which it is very difficult to foresee where they’re headed. And it is this sort of notion of endurance, of that kind of improvisation. So, you have both improvisation and you have the stalwart Detroit music practice, which is adamant about a certain modality through which we believe a certain kind of Black future will endure.
AB: So, my final question is…
AB: … related to composition. I had the opportunity to hear your lecture at last year’s AAG. And you said in that lecture…
AMS: So, I met you then? Ah.
AB: I was sitting somewhere in the back.… And of course, the room was huge, so, I’m never one to overwhelm the speaker at the end. But I really enjoyed that talk and I learned a lot from it as most everything that you write, I learn from. In that talk, you said our lives are composed always through technical objects. And then in the book, you speak about the influence of Sun Ra and his understanding of extra-planetary urbanism, of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come—which I found myself listening to as I was preparing for the interview. I wanted to go back and hear these things. And also, James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain, which I think of as having a very strong element of the oratory. And you talk about these things as being formative texts from which your own urban work emerged. So, I’m wondering for my final question, if you could name three other albums, artists, genres, or technical objects, as examples of this assemble work that, that you use in the book? That you can think of as being part of the way that you composed Improvised Lives. So, essentially if you were to put together a soundtrack, but it doesn’t have to be sound, it can be objects as well, but yeah, can you name three other things that composed Improvised Lives?
AMS: Musical things?
AB: They can be.
AMS: Well I mean the Mingus Big Bands that played every Monday night at Slug’s back in the old days. [Laughter] The Big Bands that Sam Rivers used to have at Studio Rigby’s down on Bond Street back in the ‘70s, that were like going to church, you know, every Sunday night, you know.
I really liked… Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. I like the notion of “Dirty Computing.” I like her sense of …that the notion of computation being somehow…because it does suggest a kind of ensemble. I really liked the album, and I liked the concept because, doing some work within this sort of waste recycling stuff in Delhi, you know, there’s dirty computing, for sure. You know, you’re breaking down computers into all the different kinds of parts and it’s a really dirty business. But, it’s very interesting to me how that sort of operation functions, because it entails people who bring the stuff, who buy it in bulk, who strip it, who clean it, who sell it onwards, who refabricate it, who ship…there’s like all kinds of roles and functions in this ensemble …that play…this thing about stripping things down, taking things apart, and putting them back together. And, the thing is that there’s no… it’s all improvised. You know, it’s not a set of rules. It’s not a set of formats. Each actor is positioned in a whole network of relationships that far exceed that kind of business. And so, each proposes, sort of propositions to the world that come from the world in a way. And it’s those propositions that have to be, in some ways, responded to. And that’s in some ways musically what… the way in which—like Butch Morris, he used to gather these huge ensembles of players and they would compose basically on the spot. And each of these players come from working in a lot of different bands, you know, they’re all really accomplished. And so, the improvisation becomes offering propositions and those propositions are informed by their musical experience working with other bands. And so, everyone has to sort of respond to those propositions, but the propositions don’t come from them as individual musicians. It comes from their positionalities within all the other bands that they’re playing in. So, it’s in some sense comes from the world in a way. And, so, I really, I value those kinds of big band ensemble experiences that in some way give a kind of map for how things work, you know?
I’ve studied, you know, produce markets for years and years, and I see them as a kind of ensemble, musical ensemble, a big band because in some ways they have to continuously improvise on how they function. Because the conditions change all the time. It’s not just the prices that change all the time…and this is sort of what I wanted to say also, before in terms of the kind of endurance of popular neighborhoods. There’s this one area in Jakarta where it’s been less captured by this kind of [sigh], this sort of thing about this obsession with Islamic fundamental conservatism that’s sweeping the city in sort of like this working-class area. And, in recent years, this kind of thing where people are propositioning each other. And propositioning does have a kind of sexual element to it, but the content into the propositions are not that. They’re propositions that sort of come from nowhere, you know? Like someone saying to someone, ‘if you go down to that block, and tell … that you know, I sent you and that you you’re willing to do two days of work for him, he’ll tell you where to buy rice at ..you know, one-third of the price and he’ll have his youngest sister take you directly there.’ So you have propositions coming from all over place. The most sort of oftentimes superfluous and ridiculous kinds of things. But it is this kind of sense of posing possibilities that seem to come from the world as a way to try to think of and do something perhaps differently for the next few hours, or for the next couple of days. So, this to me is a kind of ensemble work. You know, where the notion of the ensemble in music gets in some ways translated in terms of thinking about the ensembles that happen within urban districts in which I work […]