Jamie Doucette (University of Manchester) and Christian Abrahamsson (University of Oslo) organized an author-meets-critics session on Sara Westin’s book The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-Analytical Perspective (Ashgate, 2014) for the 2015 AAG meeting in Chicago. Follow the links to an introduction to the forum by Jamie Doucette, reviews by Andrew Shmuely, Jesse Proudfoot, and Mark Davidson, and Sara Westin’s reply. Introduction by Jamie Doucette
This review forum on Sara Westin’s The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-analytical Perspective originated in an author meets critics session that Christian Abrahamsson and I organized for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago earlier this year. The panellists at that session included Felicity Callard (Durham), Mark Davidson (Clark), Jesse Proudfoot (Toronto), and Andrew Shmuely (UBC). The latter three provided reviews for this forum. As the book’s contents and main arguments are critically assessed in these reviews, I will limit my introduction to some contextual remarks on the text and some notes about the broader, interdisciplinary traditions it brings together...Review by Andrew Shmuely
Following in the (both trailblazing and transgressive) footsteps of acclaimed Swedish geographer Gunnar Olsson, with The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-Analytical Perspective Sara Westin has given us a truly remarkable synthetic account that spans across an impressively wide range of sources, disciplines, and scholarly traditions. Her efforts to put the fields of planning and architecture on the analyst’s couch, as it were, have garnered a fresh round of insights into what she has here termed the vision-reality gap: that is, the—often significant, if not diametrically opposed—distance/dissonance between the (abstract, conceived) plan and its (concrete, lived) implementation in the urban world of everyday life. Arguing that “the need for more facts is lesser than the need to evaluate what we think we already know,” Westin effectively utilizes a combined psychoanalytic/perspectival approach to expose the myriad ways in which the ghosts of modernism can be found haunting the planning and architecture professions right up to the present...Review by Jesse Proudfoot
At the beginning of The Paradoxes of Planning, Sara Westin tells us that she initially wanted to open her book with the sentence “I love cities.” It is no surprise then that one finds, here, a book that is deeply in love with the urban and passionate about what cities make possible for those who live there. But precisely what it is about the city that Westin loves is a more complicated question. This is a book above all about a particular ideal of the urban—an urbanity of bodies and encounters, democracy and publicity, contact and sensuous experience—a vision of the city we are perhaps most familiar with from the great counter-cultural reactions to modernist urban planning such as Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities and Richard Sennett’s Uses of Disorder. In The Paradoxes of Planning, Westin traces this ideal through an impressive range of sources and traditions, from urbanists like Jacobs and Sennett, to the literature of Virginia Woolf and August Strindberg, Baudelaire and his interpreters in Walter Benjamin and Susan Buck-Morss, and even the space-syntax theories of Bill Hillier...Review by Mark Davidson
Gramsci was said to be known for his passionate commitment to honesty. His co-collaborator Andrea Viglongo described Gramsci as demanding total honesty and trust in their personal relations. Their mobile reading club – which discussed Aurelius’s Meditations whilst roaming the streets – was seen by Gramsci as the embryonic form of revolutionary change. Honesty, and therefore doubt, was necessary for thinking and politics. It can be hard to find traces of such sentiments in today’s academia. What makes Sara Westin’s The Paradoxes of Planning such a stimulating read is that it is delivered with such honesty one cannot immediately decipher her position or academic strategy; the usual academic prescriptions and pretenses are missing from much of this work. This book operates outside of the normal academic conventions, taking the form of internal dialogue—Sara arguing with Sara—that seeks little more than an understanding of a particular place...Response by Sara Westin
To say that I enjoyed the commentaries by Andrew Shmuely, Jesse Proudfoot and Mark Davidson would be a gross understatement. Truth is I am moved, and more than impressed, by the thoughtful and carefully formulated readings they provide. Highly nuanced, their remarks could be left to speak for themselves, especially as they show a sensibility to the text that commands my deepest respect. Still, I will briefly comment on the main points of their critiques: the absence of a political-economical perspective; the problem of de-historicisation; the overemphasis on the figure of Dionysus...
The panellists at that session included Felicity Callard (Durham), Mark Davidson (Clark), Jesse Proudfoot (Toronto), and Andrew Shmuely (UBC). The latter three provided reviews for this forum. As the book’s contents and main arguments are critically assessed in these reviews, I will limit my introduction to some contextual remarks on the text and some notes about the broader, interdisciplinary traditions it brings together.
The Paradoxes of Planning originated from Westin’s doctoral dissertation completed at Uppsala University in 2010 and entitled Planned, All too Planned, which she subsequently translated, revised and updated for publication with Ashgate. The book itself is centered on a series of powerful and sensuous demands for urbanity — for the urban as a site of desire and emotion, reason and passion, experience and encounter.
Readers familiar with Swedish geography will notice the influence of Westin’s former supervisor, Gunnar Olsson, in the book’s proclivity for transgressing disciplinary boundaries, and in its embrace of ‘perspectivism’, an approach that brings conflicting viewpoints into dialogue (Abrahamsson and Gren 2012). Westin pushes this dialectical approach — first developed by Olsson (1980) in Birds in Egg: Eggs in Birds — in a novel direction by using it to generate a close interdisciplinary engagement between urban planning and Freudian psychoanalysis. To do so, she calls on disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, literature, and critical theory to illustrate a series of contrasting viewpoints that highlight the conflicted nature of the self and of the world inhabited by professional planners. The tension between what Westin calls the ‘eye’ of the architect and the ‘body’ of the flaneur, for instance, provides one of the book’s central motifs.
Starting with a critical analysis of the Stockholm area of Hammarby Sjöstad, Westin slowly builds her arguments into a critique of modern planning itself, and the way it builds cities without ‘urbanity’, full of ennui and devoid of the diverse encounters that make cities desirable places in themselves despite planners’ best intentions. What accounts for the gap between vision and reality, form and process? One of Westin’s answers is that the modern planning profession suffers from a form of neurosis that elevates logic over desire, function over form, and reason over experience. This repression, she argues, leads to alienation and creates a void between vision and reality, intention and outcome, within the built environment.
To get at this psychoanalytic kernel of truth, Westin asks about not what planners think, but about how they think. Moving away from the image of the planner as a rational and transparent being, she ventures into the complex realm of the conflicted psyche. This approach allows Westin to move beyond a mere ideology-critique of the structural biases of the planning profession – i.e. whose interests it includes and excludes, what relations of exploitation it obscures – to look into the self-sabotaging psyche of planners themselves that is produced by their tendency to elevate ends over means, logic over experience, reason over desire. Thus, Westin comes to regard planning as a practice of self-oppression and alienation; of a neurotic suffering that she sees as intimately connected to the human condition as such.
This approach yields a number of stimulating rewards by pushing the well-known critique of modernist planning by authors such as Jane Jacobs, Henri Lefebvre, Herbert Marcuse and Richard Sennett in new, interdisciplinary and psychoanalytical directions. However, as the reviewers suggest, Westin’s psychoanalytical treatment of the planning profession also raises some critical concerns. At the AAG session, Callard raised important points – which are unfortunately not reproduced in this forum – about psychoanalysis’s own internal limits and conflicted history. Meanwhile, while the reviews included here critically praise Westin’s approach, they also raise critical points concerning the historicization of urban planning in capitalist societies, where urban space is produced to suit the requirements of capital accumulation. Here, the neurotic suffering and alienation of the planner may be less a factor of self-sabotage and more a question of the social relations that separate manual from mental labour. This separation, or alienation, as Westin might put it, produces the planner as an ‘expert’ whose knowledge is more often than not insulated from both the sensuous experience of urban space and its political contestation.
Altogether, the reviews in this forum aim to encourage further explorations of the planning profession’s conflicted psyche that build upon Westin’s approach and to push her work in new directions.