"My Dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you're born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train's pulled into Piccadilly Circus they've become a Londoner."
- Ben Aaronovitch, Moon Over Soho.
Initially, this post was to be about a personal take of my first week of being in London but my first class today (25/09/2017) in the Urban Social Theory with Dr David Madden had put before me a lens of what is called 'thinking reflexively' - something which would intentionally and consciously influence the way I perceive the city from this point onwards.
Albeit an introductory class - which we began by wading through the concepts of urban theories which will be taught through the length of Michaelmas term; we then quickly dove into a paper by Henri Lefebvre (a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist) entitled "Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis" (translated by Laurent Corroyer, Marriane Potvin and Neil Brenner) . We were given a few minutes to read the 3-page critical theorisation of the Parisian growth - that somewhat appeared to many of us as the author's perspective as the devolution of a what a modern city is romanticised to be (or a form of emancipatory notion of the right to the city, as stated by Gareth Millington). He opened the argument with a poem from Guillaume Apollinaire:
"Paris nights are drunk with gin
And blaze with electricity
Green fires, flashing along their spines
Tramways up and down their rails
Shed tunes of mechanical folly." - The Song of a Poorly Loved.
As far as physical facade is concerned, cities with a built environment like Paris and, if I may add, London are deep-seated in popular culture as desirable tourist destinations. Almost everyone who had ever visited these countries would never go home without having a photo with the iconic Eiffel Tower and Tower Bridge in the background. But beyond this spectacle, the modern cities as we know it today has become very international, and has transformed into a site of consumption; as it is also an object of consumption.
At the end of this paper where he raised three paradoxes (1. the more the city is extended, the more its social relations deteriorate, 2. centers and peripheries presuppose and oppose one another, and 3. socialist world has only slowly and belatedly become aware of the immensity of urban questions and of their decisive nature for building a new society) - he ended by stating that the citizen and the city dweller have been dissociated.
"Being a citizen used to mean remaining for a long period of time in a territory. But in the modern city, the city dweller is in perpetual movement - constantly circulating and settling again, eventually being extricated from place entirely, or seeking to do so.... Given such trends, isn't it necessary to reformulate the framework for citizenship. The city dweller and the citizen must be linked but not conflated. The right to the city implies nothing less than a revolutionary concept of citizenship."
This takes me back to the first quote in this post by Ben Aaronovitch and the photo of Oxford Street which I took in a typically busy and crowded Friday evening. I did at several moments, felt overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the famous street, a mixed emotion that pivots around feeling disorientated, astounded by its display of human diversity and exhilirated by the dizzying array of options for consumption. Although the quote by Ben is an excerpt from his fictional book - the truth in it is hardly fictitious. I looked back at the photo and realised that although I am not pictured within the frame, I was within the larger frame of the city.
Before I arrived in London, I was determined that this is only a temporary station, a place which I will be a guest for a year, with a very specific mission - that is to obtain a MSc degree and then return to where I come from promptly thereafter. However, I am increasingly realising that it would be impossible to live like a guest for one year. The need to adapt to the local condition requires me to be aware and take heed of the various textures that envelopes and meander throughout every surface and form of the city. Transcending sight, sound and smell - its nuances, narratives and milieu must not be ignored and watched from the stand as a spectator. The city embraces you, even if you haven't already embraced it.
Physically being and living in a city like London makes you part of its urban fabric. I have become part of the statistics - regardless of my will or awareness. I then realised that I have become the city dweller which Henri articulated and Ben illustrated.
The existing rights to the city has been welcoming for someone like me (a graduate student) - an access to which I personally believe is because of capitalism and the pursuit of of profitability and social control - the very same reasons which Henri thinks is an easy point of a finger towards what is failing the living and livable City (as he is also convinced that socialism has not been able to deliver an better outcome either). Such school of thought (if I may assume) may have branched from Marx and Engels' criticism that the "social evolution of humans not complete until capitalism was transformed into socialism".
Without a doubt, I am just scratching the surface of urban social theory, and my understanding and interpretations/criticisms of it would be amatuer and most probably at risk of going off on a tangent. I would still need to consume and understand classical theoretical perspectives from names which I had barely ever mentioned in my daily life, i.e. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ferdinand Tonnies, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Max Weber and many many more. This is truly out of my comfort zone but I am probably at no better time in my life to go down this rabbit hole :)