Experimenting in the experimental city

Cities are the epithet of progress. Cities are the humanity’s greatest invention (Glaeser, 2011). Cities are sites for experimenting, creating, and innovating. But cities are also scenarios where poverty, inequality, environmental threatens, and insecurity happen. Cities are administrative ways of dividing geographies. “City” is a metaphor; the city is a semantic resource. “City” is a label used for gathering groups of random-particular places with the aim of governing and regulating them.

Cities are many things and no one in specific at the same time. First, a “city” is something that we take for granted. From many centuries ago we have been living in (touch with) those administrative territories that we have been named as cities. They are nothing new for us; we can find cities in literature, on tv, in political and academic productions, but paradoxically cities are hard to find when we go outside. However, cities have been continually growing and expanding absorbing other forms of living commonly.

Why are cities hard to find outside? The easiest answer is because that is not their natural habitat. Cities are mental objects hard to project, in a pragmatic way, over the world that is there. Those objects are easy to translate into maps, pieces of paper into symbols, and managerial codes. We can find cities in political discourses, planning prototypes, and policymakers offices. Outside we have infrastructures, actions, elements, and association of elements constantly being structured.

The concept “city” appears only when we need to talk about regulative and bureaucratic issues: the place were we got born, the demarcation of a territory, the implementation of a specific program. Nevertheless, and despite that, what defines a city is a topic discussed continuously. Measuring the population density rate is one of the most accepted methodologies for defining what a city is. The size of the area and spatial composition is also a way of determining that. The situation turns difficult with the emergence of metropolitan areas and the inclusion of other territories with a sort of administrative independence but with some communal logics regarding, for example, productive activities.

The figure of the “city” in Marx’s and Engels’ works turns around a historical relate where this notion appears as a result of organizing people around capitalist modes of production. in Durkheim’s positivist proposal, “city” appears as a sort of synonym of “society” linked to a sociocultural evolutionary process. Simmel’s work highlights the urban condition of living in a “city” rather than the “city” itself produced by a process of urbanization. From Max Weber’s point of view, the city is the result of different long-social processes. The “city” as an ecology was the proposal of the Chicago School. The urban life has the shape of a “web of life” where organisms were cohabiting based on biological interdependence relationships.

Talking about “city” in an academic way is using a concept that is not quite clear and that depends on the intentions and theoretical background of each researcher. In this way, the notion of “city” acquires an experimental condition due to it is used in a pragmatic an and speculative way for testing or, at least, for trying to explain the way how we live together. Even when we take the “city” for granted, assuming it as the place where we live in, its experimental nature can be traced following the way how the different elements we identify as part of a “city” are constantly empirically constructing that collective life we call as “reality.”

However, if we try to decompose what a “city” is we would find some common materials in almost any kind of vision and theory about this topic. There is a place; there are some elements happening in that place; there are some actions and logics involved; there are some associations temporally assembled transforming the space. What I see unsettled here is assuming per se the validity of the “city” as a study object in urban studies from STS. There are three points I consider problematic regarding this matter: (1) The impossibility of approaching the city in a whole. (2) The inconvenience of a spatial scalar perspective. (3) The fact of confusing the explanation with what should be explained.

Instead of considering the “city” as something already given, that should be a concept in a constantly process of being re-signified and twisted in relation with what we want to describe, in other words, with our study object. Despite at the first glance it gives the impression that as urban researchers we work on “a city,” our pieces of research and descriptions are focused on both particular and localized places and infrastructures, and specific problems affecting singular communities or associations.

Another situation is that the “city” is an actor that have been present in popular culture and in every chapter of our story as humanity since many time ago. From classics works such as Homero’s The Iliad and Aristotle’s Politics to our personal way of locating us in the world, we have been using this notion for recognizing ourselves as members of a community. Although this is a different way of being in relation with our environment, it is still an administrative approach of regulation and self-localization. Nevertheless, one thing is assuming this concept as a part of the imaginaries and mental structures present in popular culture and another thing is using it as a valid metaphor for doing urban-STS ethnography.

With all of this I am not pretending to stabling a differentiation between popular and academic knowledge. Not at all. I consider that an ethnographical piece of research from STS should include all the necessary point of views —from any side— in order to achieve a deep and a long description of a particular place. However, the position and relevance of each point of view will depend on the specificities of each analysis and their own particularities. But, including those kinds of perspectives, “city” in the case of this work, as part of our stories does not imply to use them as analytical notions. If we decided to do that we should find a way of translating them.

A possibility for displacing the idea of “city,” from an exogenous environment to a valid academical construction, is applying the figure of synecdoche totum pro parte, —“the whole for a part”—. In this way, the notion of “city” could be understood as a semantic strategy for naming some agglomerations under a context of regulation, administration and localization. A city is turning into an experimental concept holding a temporal contingency of ideologies, factual elements and methodological proposals designed for approaching the urban.

Another possibility is applying a synecdoche but using an opposite structure at this time: pars pro toto, —“a part for the whole”—. This strategy is the one I am interested to apply in my work. The reason is that in this way we start for taking care of well demarcated and located spatialities, flattening and decomposing then through the act of following some trajectories and group formations. Using the pars per toto approach we draw our attention to the particular and to the emergence of new associations, instead of starting with solid pieces of theory.

Summarizing this discussion and getting us located in an empirical situation, when I am talking about the “city” is because I found the “city” materialized in a specific way outside. Same situation can happen with other elements we use to take for granted such as economy, politics, gentrification, and recently smart-somethings and innovation. If I want to include them in my descriptions I have to find them walking around the locations I want to decompose, instead of just assuming their existence per se, and using them as theoretical wildcard presets for applying in any context.