taCity

#AAG2015 afterthoughts

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The Annals of American Geographers annual conference this year was in Chicago, and as usual, was a hectic 5 days of sessions, networking, partying and pontificating. The ante seemed particularly high this year, there was a heightened sense of a complex mix of emotional states; excitement (perhaps a symptom of being in such a great city), enjoyment (plenty of people seemed to have beaming smiles), anger (name-calling was heard), insecurity (lots of discussions about academic precarity) and exhaustion (no-one I spoke to seemed well-rested). I targeted a route through the sessions that was focused on my current and future research plans, namely critical urbanism, activism and subversion, and so I found myself gravitating to sessions with ‘neoliberalism’, ‘activism’, ‘urban justice’ and ‘subversion’ in the title. Some were fantastic, others less so, but that is an inevitable consequence of the AAG’s policy of excepting all abstracts. One of the major themes though that I took home was that critical urban theoretical discussions are slightly laboured, a bit tail-chasing, and while important to provide a conceptual framework for activism, still seems not as connected to ‘on the ground’ experience, marginality and radical politics as it could be.

One of the major highlights was the first of the CITY debates (excellently curated by Alex Schafran). The collision between Michael Storper, Christian Schmid on the panel, and Bob Catterall in the audience provided a pinch point to the main argument. A debate about how important Lefebvre’s ideas should be to urban theory led to a broader debate about what theory is needed in order to conceptualise the urban most inclusively. Here are some of the tweets that I made/saw during the debate:

This, as you can imagine, proved to be fairly spicy. But Bob’s point was that urban theoretical discussions are negating the work of activists and younger scholars. Being a younger scholar myself who is being drawn more and more into activism, I found myself nodding away with too much alacrity.

This point was further concretised for me by Ananya Roy‘s Urban Geography plenary. Her talk was thoroughly engaging, and rooted in intense empirical research in a specific location in India. It led to her critical take on Brenner and Schmid’s idea of planetary urbanism, and her overall argument was a compelling one. Some of the twitter highlights:

This empirically and experience-led theorising was further carried out in other sessions, particularly the one organised by Alex Jeffery, Alex Vasudevan and Colin McFarlane on political enactment. The papers were empirically-rich, but never lost sight of what the findings meant for political urban theory. Michele Lancione‘s paper on the eviction of the Roma community in Bucharest was fantastic, and made a very intelligent link between empirics and theory. Equally as engaging was Tariq Jazeel‘s talk on the manifestações in Rio:

Other sessions that spoke to these topics relatedly was a really-well convened session on ‘doing creative economies‘ which far from peddling the usual creative economic rhetoric evidenced the ways in which marginal groups were disadvantaged by the increasing neoliberalised logic of the dead, but still dominant idea of creativity. Some of the highlights:

There was of course, my paper which tried to tie some of all of these ideas together (creativity, activism, urban theory). And it was of course, great to finally see a physical copy of my book…

Finally, I have attended the deaf geographies sessions in the last few AAGs because not only are they a thoroughly lovely bunch of people, but the politics of deaf geography has I believe a very important commensurability with some of the wider debates about radicality in geography. Deaf geography is interested in the interface between normalised spaces of the individual, society and the city and how people’s alternative states of becoming are forcing such normalisations to stretch, contort and break in reaction to their inherent problems and inequalities. The wider implications of the deaf geographies literature can make a viable contribution to radical politics more generally, something I want to flesh out further:

So for me, the AAG was a mixed bag. Frustration at the sometimes tail-chasing nature of ‘high’ urban theory, but excitement at how we can disrupt this process by ‘kicking the tyres’ of theory, testing them experientially. It’s given me plenty of ideas and hopefully, the will to follow them through.

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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