Siting urban comparativism: The conundrums of the “out there”

By AbdouMaliq Simone, University of Sheffield

One of the constitutive dimensions of comparing urban situations concerns the notion of the “out there.” How does a particular city or urban region compare with another city out there in some wider world; compare with something that is distinct, of some distance, but which is categorically similar enough to warrant attempts to derive some theoretical or practical relationship. In this brief essay, I want to consider not so much the mechanics of comparison themselves but this spatio-temporal domain of an “out there.” Not in terms of the specificities which are situated out there but the sense of a beyond itself and why it is important—ontologically and politically—to the very grounds of identifying the “here and now.”

Urban modernities concerned the ways in which space and time were organized in rational ways that reflect linear progressions, differentiated functions, ordered relations of cause and effect, and the configuration of circulatory systems that placed landscapes, resources and productivity in relationship to each other. Still cities were haunted by something “out there,” beyond the capacity to control, beyond the ordering of sovereignties that attempted to identify that outside. Beyond the incursions of potential enemies, disease vectors, or wayward natural occurrences, this “out there” pointed to the unanticipated implications of modernity’s own accomplishments. For, the capacity of the urban to interrelate different ways of life and materialities generated unanticipated excesses and trajectories that sometimes escaped the ability of governments to fold in disorder as an instigation to continuous progress.

These conditions are then antecedents for considering the position of a contemporary urban human and for the prospects of a life that exceeds both the capacity of the urban to individuate life, to enhance its productivity, and to consider how human life itself might be remade to insulate it from the adverse conditions that urbanization itself largely generated.  The urban human as a particular breed or brand is staked to three basic features of the urban. Firstly, the urban is the concrete manifestation of the human capacity of continuous self-invention. As the continuous rearrangement and intersection of things, urbanization exemplifies the human as something without any fundamental nature, as something open-ended, as process rather than entity, and where the “end” of the human is itself indicative of such open-endedness.  In other words, as Beth Povinelli (2016) puts it, the capacity of the human to decide for itself the terms of its own finitude and of the fundamental distinction between life and nonlife.

Second, the urban is the limit of that very capacity of continuous becoming. For, the implications of urbanization posit the real possibilities of human extinction and have always done so. Third, the urban is a form of life yet to come or, alternately and simultaneously, a form of human enactment that does not yet possess a mode of visibility or a vernacular to be sufficiently recognizable, something outside the available frames of recognition, as shadow, absence, immanence, or spirit—or even as undergirding, as the tain of the image, the support or background required to make the visible something that can be seen.

That which is to come, that which is to be invented either as new beginning or end, and that which constrains any invention—all intersect in ways that upend clear distinctions between the inside and out, here and there, the urban and non-urban. Yet if these divides persist in both concept and everyday experience, how then to situate a way of being human that is something else besides an all-encompassing urbanization—something that co-exists with it in an intimate proximity but yet is not of it, neither as contradiction nor alternative? Something that remains “out there,” of uncertain distance and form.

As urbanization becomes more extensive and extended, it would also seem to be moving in the direction of an “out there,” taking on the risk of what Lauren Berlant (2016) calls constant interruptions. From the elongated circuits of interminable migration, to the diffuse and nearly all encompassing insecurities that make up the raison d’etre of gated communities, to the vague aspirations of those willing to jettison relatively secure positions in the urban core to inchoate futures of urban hinterlands, to the febrile imaginations of those living in carceral conditions, often without discernible walls, the “out there” is not only an object of longing or dread, but an increasingly active participant in the here and now.

And so this presence of the “out there” raises the question, “what time is it?” How do we think about this time, if “out there” is another one? Well the answer is, that increasingly we don’t know, as time is urbanized itself—rendered more complex, numerous and all over the place. Despite all the efforts to settle this question, what time is it, once and for all. In the prolongation of settler mentalities that not only attempts to fix an “out there” to a hierarchy of value and use, but also colonize the very possibilities of speech beyond solliquoy, the plantation endures full force, folding in heterogeneous logics of land use to corporate mono-cropping and the circulation of goods and knowledge to logistical systems. What’s left in the way of small farms or workshops is converted into platforms of boutique consumption. To be set lose becomes the defining urban condition for all except the blackest. At the same time, where the plantation may have once “set the clock,” established a form of homogenous time through which human efficacy was to be measured and to which everyday rhythms of what bodies could do with each other were regulated, it is not clear that such temporal discipline works anymore, if ever.

If on the one hand, the simultaneous erasure of time’s heterogeneity and its particularization through intensfied global spatial division appears to be a key characteristic of contemporary urbanization, the extension of urbanization also underlines the simultaneous existence of many temporalities. Here, different ways and rhythms of doing things, transacting, buying and selling, making and distributing, deliberating and deciding are both exposed and extended to each other. Rather than a multiplicity of times being subsumed into a standarized version, across much of the urban world, discrepant temporalities tend to co-exist, even if the terms of co-existence tend to disallow the capacity of any one of them to posit its own trajectories of implication. After all, the colony hasn’t gone anywhere.

Yet, the time of bazaar, the festival, the factory, the neighborhood, the coordinates of modernity, the time of extended family and kinship relations, the time of religious devotion, the time of diurnal and nocturnal markets, the time of administrative bureaucracies all co-exist.  They co-exist not as individual tracts, not as the rhythms of autonomous worlds but as pressure points that avail any operation to the exigencies and operational practices of the other. Here, exposure is both an act of risk and indifference. One pays attention to something just because it is there and can be used without fear of contamination or undo influence. And if exposure means a certain infection, than so what, who is interested in the integrity of things anyway now.

Take for example, the bazaar. The bazaar was a multifaceted commercial system that integrated individual merchants and trades, that provided credit to those unable to access formal banking mechanisms, that mobilized political sentiment, that charted out specific geographies of articulation, that shifted resources across various kinds of social, geographic, and religious ties, that established the price of things based on considerations that far exceeded those of supply and demand, and that shaped the structure and settlement of built environments. The bazaar continues to thrive. In a world of logistics, just-in-time production, and constantly recalibrated commodity chains, the bazaar thrives not on the basis of what it was, and the implications of its own logics and operations, but because those very logics and operations offer a resource to so-called modern economies and to advanced logistical operations when those economies and operations run into difficulty, when they confront choke points or blockage (Neilson et al., 2018).

The implicit design of urban economies is such as to elaborate semi-permeable interfaces amongst such varying temporalities.  There is just enough of a solid, definitive boundary to enable the ongoing recognition of the coherence of a specific time.  But it is a boundary that leaks or that can be “reversed engineered” into incoporating or adhering to discrepant times when need be. Here extensive urbanization is not the unfolding of a single temporal format, not the imposition of a standardized time—although there may indeed be elements of such a process—but rather the extending of diverse temporalities to each other. Here is an urbanization of temporality itself, of a process of switching back and forth, changing temporal gears, accelerating and slowing down as a means of diversifying the rhythms of enactment so as to complexify the sensory field of urban life, to engender a wider range of implications and behavioral possibilities and, as such, modalities of valuation. At least at the temporal level, the out there is in here, and vice-versa.

As such the urban human is subject to multiple rhythms of endurance. Never before have human individuals been so idiosyncratic—and, in part, this idiosyncracy is a product of the infinite running of algorithmic computations that resituate individual life in terms of all others being resituated. Never before has human life been accessible simply as biomass to be expended or securitized. The urban poor are no longer reserve labor but indications of the capacity of states to move bodies around, keep them in line, kill them when necessary, and thus prove their creditworthiness on the international market. The refusal to invest in social reproduction, leaving the poor to fend for themselves under conditions when fending becomes improbable, conveys the willingness of nations to do what is necessary to guarantee the safety of foreign investment. As such, the nation detaches itself from its own coherence in favor of the machinic resonances of continuous incomes streams dutifully laundered. Life for many is what Neferti Tadiar (2022) refers to as “remaindered life,” that which remains after the pursuit of a normative humanity has been exhausted.

What this signals is that what we have long recognized as the criteria for human life may no longer suffice. The elite seem willing to finally abandon the conceit of the human as a self-reflecting, autonomous subject guided by enlightened free will—a position always buttressed by a class of urban residents denied such a position—in favor of merging with technical prosthetics and artificial intelligence. As such, why should any of the urban majority waste their time on self-reflexivity? If the laboring body is made obsolete by automation and robotics, and no longer sustainable in the long run because of changes in climate, why should we bother with obsessions about where work will come from for the exploding youth populations of Africa and South Asia? 

Key to this issue is the notion of exposure. Not only the exposure of bodies to a growing number of vulnerabilities, not only exposure in terms of the value of whatever assets an individual might have in their pockets or portfolios, not only exposure in terms of the capacity of individual thoughts and feelings to be read, marketized and used to develop more proficient control systems. But exposure to an “out there,” something beyond the familiar trappings of the human, beyond the trap of being human, beyond the entrapment of populations having been convinced that becoming properly human is something worth pursuing.

Given these different connotations of exposure, that outside to be exposed to may not strategically be some image of emancipation or availing of rights to all. Rather the “out there” may simply be something within the most banal of landscapes, within miles of faceless apartment blocks, within long stretches of mass produced storage facilities, cheap hotels, strip malls, and faded industrial zones. That “out there” might be rather the possibility of an “anything whatsoever,” a mode of visibility where it is difficult to tell for sure what something is, what something contains or embodies.

That “out there” may best be seen as a compression of multiplicities, a capacity for anyone to read something about themselves into a particular situation. Rather than having a specific destination in mind or an idea of fulfillment or accomplishment, the urban majority is showing significant signs of opting rather for a kind of maximum exposure, not to the truth of a particular situation—even as obsessions with religiosity are growing—but rather to an absence of clarity, to a background of prolific details not yet or if ever organized into a coherent narrative of development, of what it means to be human. 

Perhaps like the so-called “white man’s burden,” the middle class of today’s Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, Phllipines, India, and Thailand, to name a few, see themselves as doubling down on their positions, not so much through a confident knowing of who they are, but in marshalling an intensifying vitriole for the backwardness and immorality of the poor, many of which are not so poor anymore, but are begrudingly viewed as having more fun, more scope in their everyday itineraries, less tied down by debt and obligation. What is crucial here is the increased visibility then of a lower middle class, barely crossing a threshold of verification, that can no longer be regarded as strictly poor, that manage, even with limited assets to perform many of the same “rituals” conventionally associated with being middle class, but without the moral and behavioral constraints. Inhabiting a place becomes less important than unfolding multiple possible configurations of concretizing shelter and income streams, fulfilling household and extended family obligations, and ways of imagining the future. It entails assessments about where and how opportunities are moving across the urban region, under what conditions, and what then are various routes available to access them. It a strategy based on mobility, of generating spaces of inhabitation through movement—a practice that has long been the purview of the poor.

But these actions also reiterate in a more general way to the extent to which demarcations and apprehensions of space are a result of intersecting itineraries that enfold specific sites as ever changing passageways of arrival and departure, articulated to various elsewheres in ways that are always being changed by the itineraries themselves. How itineraries with their concomitant sensibilities, backgrounds, services, and goods converge and part, how they work themselves around each other with different proportions of contact, how they sense the implications of each others’ presence or absence—all imbue a space with a certain solidity that enables specific rhythms of repetition and adjustment that enable the space to assume a particular character, Again, this is a matter of exposure, of itinearies exposed to each other as they pass through. Even as circulation is subject to tracking, control and targeting, perhaps is it easier for exposure to take place on the run, rather than investing everything in developing platform or place. It is one way to sneak the “out there” into the ambit of daily operations, not undetected but perhaps imbued with enough ambiguity to make every kind of police think twice before shooting.

Cite this article as: Simone, A. (2023, March 20). Siting urban comparativism: The conundrums of the “out there.” Global Qualitative Sociology Network.

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