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ince Learning the City: Translocal Assemblage and Urban Politics was published over a decade ago, I have developed the habit of thinking through the conceptual and empirical angles of my own meandering urban investigations alongside Colin McFarlane’s published writing. Contributors to this review suggest that I am in good company, as Alize Arican, Nitin Bathla, Kevin Ward, Ash Amin, Theresa Enright and Tatiana Thieme explain some of the ways in which Colin’s most recent book has inspired them. The great Levi Strauss captured this ability to generate new thinking: Colin’s work is indisputable good to think with. Fragments of the City extends and sharpens the analysis of assemblage urbanism. As Ash Amin says unequivocally, ‘The book is a triumph’. It certainly is. Unusually, it combines careful scholarship guided by laser-like precision in thinking what a fragment might be, with loose, speculative and creative ways of researching and writing which make new, discrepant connections and juxtapositions from the urban ground, and, sometimes, from the toilet. Not long ago, at a high level round table in Delhi, I listened to Colin producing conceptually sophisticated comments on what cities are and how they work from Indian toilets. His book practices what it advocates, the benefits to urban scholarship of working with the incomplete and the provisional, alongside multiple emerging situations and voices on the ground. In Colin’s hands, the city is many things at once, unsettled and always in the making, with a multitude of possibilities simultaneously in motion.
Fragments of the City animates intuitive and speculative ways of conceptualising, researching and writing about cities; cut loose from the conventions of methodological audit trails and the customary constrictions of theoretical framing. For me and my inner urban explorer, this brings excitement, a sense of discovery to urban research, a buzz which is sometimes in short supply in the academy. Theresa Enright’s review appreciates that Fragments of the City begins with what she calls ‘elemental details’, which are subsequently connected to each other in unusual and creative ways, without the strictures of guiding structural logics. Seen in this way, urban exploration becomes a motile tangle of material surfaces, opportunities, vantage-points, connections, and possibilities, moving in all directions at once. Complex and perplexing, this is research in which anything can happen: gripping stuff, and how refreshing is that? Unusual juxtapositions of places and ‘scenes’, seemingly inconsequential details, strange vignettes, offer unusual angles onto the multitude that is the city. Alize Arican admires these incomplete vibrant forms that don’t need to be tidied away with overarching explanation. Leaving things open is a bold move defying the usual conventions of scholarly housekeeping.
The experimental writing and analysis in Fragments of the City practices the fragmentation it explores, offering episodic, and sometimes seemingly discrepant vignettes, as Kevin Ward suggests. Fragments are starting points from which to explore bigger landscapes and more expansive processes of city making. Colin slowly and skilfully unfolds these as they move in different directions, like the sequences composing a film, something Nitin Bathla appreciates, in which narratives are not inevitably linear, but shift from tableau to tableau, creating intriguing kaleidoscopic patterns and oblique associations which are not necessarily resolved. Colin advocates dipping into the book and reading it in no particular order or direction. And much like Benjamin’s Arcades, it brilliantly performs the vibrant unfolding possibilities of urban life, which is of course what makes it so good to think with and allows readers to ‘see and feel urban worlds’ as Tatiana Thieme observes. Inevitably, working intuitively and promiscuously from fragments brings its analytical challenges. Ash Amin’s warning that reading bottom up from fragments, as the genealogies of top down urban management which are ‘present, engrained and powerful’ brings the ‘cold force’ of such systems, is well taken. Fragments mobilise multiple scales of urban operation all at the same time and raise complicated issues about their resonance in processes that extend beyond them.
I particularly enjoyed Fragments of the City for its attention to the often taken for granted fundamentals of habitation. By this I mean the material fabrics of urban occupation – the makeshift shelters that provide temporary places of rest for bodies launched on the manoeuvres of daily survival. Colin’s photograph of Mumbai’s bricks and tangled cables, the washing line and plastic water holders, captured through the aperture of a narrow alleyway, reminds me of the many photographs of rusting corrugated iron sheets and wooden shelters, built on the uncertainties of hostile land tenure systems in informal settlements, that I have taken over the years and which I am unsure how to mobilise in my writing. These ubiquitous material surfaces of urban life tell stories that are anyway not easily rendered in words, and maybe it is better to leave them to speak through exhibitions, as installations, photographs, and other creative expressions, where they can articulate more freely what it means and what it is like to live within these dilapidated bookends to each day. These structures are not just about the aesthetic of urban habitation, they also evoke as they mobilise, versions of urban infrastructure manifested in poor sanitation and disease alongside burgeoning possibilities for getting by: at one and the same time bleak and optimistic.
The rumination on routes and remnants are especially rich, as Colin guides us through the long and diverse pedigree of urban walking. What I enjoyed most about these sections was his reflection on his own routes through Glasgow as a young person, learning where he could and couldn’t walk, as he roamed and probed the social landscape of his familiar city. As walking is my preferred method of urban exploration, because it is slow and reveals the fleeting ephemerality of city life, I particularly enjoyed these sections, and wished that Colin had included further autobiographical reflections throughout his book. Long after I had finished writing my own book, Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, I found in Fragments of the City a particularly helpful articulation of my own project in Colin’s phrase ‘consolidation’. He uses this term to describe the operation of social infrastructures in establishing the Namuwongo neighbourhood in Kampala. But looking back on my walks through London’s vortex of wealth, I realised that I had, in fact, identified and described – neighbourhood by neighbourhood and street by street – London’s mechanisms of plutocratic consolidation. The city-making activities of the rich inevitably circumscribe other versions of city life. As Colin says, ‘Simply inhabiting certain spaces is increasingly a political act’ (48). Indeed it is, and acknowledging these spatial manoeuvres as a politics, destabilises what otherwise appears entrenched or inevitable, revealing fragilities and providing a space from which to challenge implicit and explicit exclusions. As Tatiana Thieme says, Fragments of the City sits with troubled times and invites us to imagine the city otherwise.
Above all, Fragments of the City suggests that small and seemingly insignificant local struggles, over neighbourhood sanitation and water for instance, are neither small nor insignificant at all. They can nudge the kaleidoscope of city life in slightly more favourable directions for low income communities, opening new alignments and possibilities with resonance beyond the neighbourhood. In an increasingly bleak world, this politics of hope is a call to action which strikes a welcome chord of optimism.
Knowles C (2022) Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London. Penguin Books Ltd.
McFarlane C (2011) Learning the City: Translocal Assemblage. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Caroline Knowles is a Global Professorial Fellow in the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme, working with 23 research projects in cities in the global south. Author of many books, articles and chapters in edited collections, her most recent books are Flip-Flop: a journey through globalisation’s backroads, published by Pluto Press in 2014 and reprinted in 2015 www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: walking plutocratic London, published by Penguin Random House 2022, www.seriousmoneybook .