Decentring the Urban

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “The Urban as Emergent Key Concept for Media Theory.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I have very much enjoyed reading the contributions to this roundtable, and find the arguments genuinely inspiring for further discussions and research. Going back to one of the original questions formulated by Scott Rodgers; whether the urban offers “a genuinely new way of thinking about the mediated worlds we inhabit”, I conclude from our short essays that the urban does seem to offer, if not a genuinely new, at least a heightened sensitivity to the complex entanglements of media and space. Urban theory opens up avenues for media scholars to work in less media-centric ways when searching for complex understandings of contemporary mediatized life forms. It encourages us to be sensitive to the specificities of different places and contexts, and the multiple roles media play in their production. It also begs us to problematize the celebratory discourses surrounding the “newness” of media, and rather recognize the deeply sedimented and socially stratified character of everyday media. Furthermore, urban theory invites us to consider the tensions between the symbolic and the material, and ultimately the very demarcations of media and city. These points seem to cut across the five contributions (albeit emphasized to different degrees), suggesting that the urban approach may actually contribute to a further vitalization of the media and communications research agenda.

A shared problem I want to highlight against the above background, however, is that a focus on “the urban” also entails the risk that we, as media researchers, contribute to the further annihilation of “non-urban” conditions, be they rural, suburban or something in-between, as well as urban conditions that do not fit the dominant and largely Western-centric narratives of post-industrial urban society (as also mentioned in the essays). The above-mentioned observations represent aspects of the space-media nexus that are not necessarily bound to urban conditions. We should thus use these insights for rethinking the mediatized production of space and place also beyond the limits, and on the margins, of what we conceive of as “urban”.

Here, I specifically want to pick up on Myria Georgiou’s argument regarding social recognition and the “right to disconnect”: the fact that “as some gain, through connection, the recognition they deserve as citizens, others, become even less recognised for their biographies, histories, and for their connections that sometimes converge into the city and sometimes diverge from it.” I find this argument incredibly important, constituting a key challenge for those of us who strive to unpack the ways in which power geometries are (re)produced in today’s mediatized society. Just like media are part and parcel of the segregation of urban landscapes, materially and symbolically, they define the centres and peripheries, the insides, outsides and in-betweens, of society also in wider respects. The social normalization of “compulsive connectivity” that Georgiou discusses makes it increasingly difficult not only to disconnect (which is sometimes seen as a sign of status and privilege), but also to advocate values and life forms that resist or problematize hegemonic forms of urbanism. These conditions are closely interwoven, and if we are to grasp the centrifugal and largely mediated power of the urban we need to “decentre the urban”. We need to look beyond the confines of cities and urban centres as such and incorporate into our research the voices and lived experiences of those whose life conditions do not fit our urban-centric culture of connectivity.

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