Toward a utopia of difference?


Having been looking into the realms of urban subcultures for the past 12 months (mostly through parkour, but I find myself constantly amazed by people’s creativity and innovate capacity in their usage of urban space), I recently re-read David Pinder’s book, Visions of the City, as it is a fantastic insight into what utopian thought, and striving for it, has done to planning and urban geographical debates in general. And having re-read it, the book brings to life the role of the Situationist International group (in particular, Guy Debord) and infuses it with the many themes of urban sub-culturism in contemporary society.

The over-riding ethos of the urban sub-cultures which engage with the urban terrain in innovate and alternative ways (which elsewhere, have been coined ‘urban subversions’) is often seen as one of reaction; a critique and subjugation of capitalist meaning in urban architecture by a more playful and sometimes ironic use of the built environment. This is something which I have argued is slightly erroneous when charged at these subversions in general, although often applies at the individual level – and something which the situationists debated. As Pinder (2005:  149) notes;

“Since the principle of the spectacle was based on contemplation and nonintervention, the letterists and the situationists sought to counter its powers by intervening in the city and experiencing its spaces directly as actors rather than spectators. They resisted dominant depictions of the city as a space of capital and traffic, and opposed restrictions on play. They attacked the way in which functionalist approaches to architecture and urbanism were seeking to eliminate play entirely, and mocked designers who implied that their schemes were being ruined by people’s tendency to play”.

The urban utopias that are alluded to in Pinder’s book often emanate from a planning perspective, most notably Ebenezer Howard’s attempts at the Garden City (which was fiercely critiqued by Jane Jacobs). Hence, the role of the Debord (at least in Europe, and perhaps Jacobs in North America) in bringing agency into the utopian rhetoric cannot be understated. The staunch anti-capitalism that is rife with the situationist mantra often overcomes any attempts at co-operation and cohabitation with capitalist thoughts,yet in my own research into urban subversions, I find increasingly that Debord and the situationists message ringing through the motivations for why these urban subversions are proliferating – or at least gaining more infamy and public attention. (NB: The internet clearly catalyzes these activities, although as it applies to all facets of communicative life, in true Latourian style we can ignore the internet as a mediator and concentrate on the real dynamism that is of interest, namely the growth in interest and participation of these subcultures.) The idea of utopia and those who try to achieve/plan/map/dream it is one which, I would argue, is crucial to society’s progression and hence is an important facet of academic and political debate – however, to always begin this debate from a purely spatial perspective, i.e. from a planning point of view, negates those who are contemporaneously appropriating the urban environment via innovation and creative use of urban tools.

The urban terrain, as I blogged recently is homogenising and for some utopian thinkers this is clearly a good thing as it seems that many utopias lack heterogeneity and shun diversity as a potential arena for conflict and schism. However, there are movements in the social science (notably human geography – although I would say that…) which suggest that the constant restriction of these types of activities under the auspiciousness of ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness’ are beginning to be resisted. Psychogeography (wonderfully outlined by Bradley L. Garrett on his blog) is a good example of a ‘movement’ (or at least an area of interest) that is seeking to dissolve the homogenised urban landscape theoretically, as well as empirically, creating a realm of horizontalised knowledge and urbanity, rather than hierarchical power and structure – something which, Pinder points out, utopias tend to favour.

The defiance of urban authority by those individuals who participate in urban subversions and their constant creativity which sparks into life other urban spaces and functionalities which otherwise not exist, are creating a different urban cultural landscape that is at odds with commonly held utopias – and as such, we may need to rethink the way in which utopias and utopian thinking informs how our cities are formed, i.e. a utopia of difference.


Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

6 thoughts on “Toward a utopia of difference?

  1. Although I got lost with some of the concepts in this post I find the situationists to be fascinating. Are we seeing results or evidence of this movement in urban areas or is still just a school of thought?

  2. I would say there is – I recently wrote about how parkour is changing the urban landscape: http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d11108. Also – check out http://www.twitter.com/UrbanSubversion for a multitude of vignettes and incidents of how people are beginning to use the urban terrain for ‘off-the-wall’ and alternative ways.

  3. Pingback: Heterophily: Why you should follow people who you disagree with on Twitter « OliMould.com

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  6. “Toward a utopia of difference? �” ended up being a remarkable blog post and thus I reallyended up being extremely pleased to read the article.
    Thanks, Erik

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