Theorizing Media after the Urban Revolution

[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.]

Worries about what counts as “urban” are as old as the interdisciplinary field of urban studies. Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution, first published in 1970, is an interesting example. At the time of its publication, urban sociology remained resolutely empirical, and the meaning of urban as such was usually taken-for-granted rather than conceptualised.1These observations largely draw upon Neil Smith’s revealing foreword found in the first English translation of the book. See: Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), vii–xxiii. In response, Lefebvre drew on a series of French writers – all of whom would later receive their own considerable critical attention (e.g. Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, Debord) – to explore a bold hypothesis: “[s]ociety has been completely urbanized.”2Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, 1. For Lefebvre, discrete notions of the urban such as “the city” or dichotomies such as urban/rural are unhelpful, conceptually and politically. The urban fabric, he says:

… does not narrowly define the built world of cities but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the country. In a sense, a vacation home, a highway, a supermarket in the countryside are all part of the urban fabric.3Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, 3-4.

The increasing spatial dispersal and diversification of cities in 1960s France and elsewhere would have been obvious to Lefebvre. His notion of an “urban society” had in some ways already been heralded by longstanding notions such as “metropolis”.4e.g. Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 103-110. Deriving from Ancient Greek, mētrópolis (μητρόπολις) captured the relationships between a mother or parent city with an extended colony, designating “an urban reality that could no longer be understood as a self-contained city with the fixed structure.”5Warren Magnusson, The Search for Political Space: Globalization, Social Movements and the Urban Political Experience (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 123. Lefebvre, however, was not so much interested in just sharpening his definition of the urban. Rather, he wanted to claim that the urban generates conditions of possibility for capitalism, rather than the other way around. It was a view which, as Neil Smith notes,6See foreword in Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, vii–xxiii. met with criticism, notably in subsequent, better-known urban theories such as David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City7David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009 [1973]). and Manuel Castells’ The Urban Question.8Manuel Castells, The Urban Question (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970).

Aspects of Lefebvre’s book do however seem to resonate with contemporary conceptualizations of urban space as “relational”9Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002). 10Doreen Massey, World City (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). or composed by “assemblages”.11Ignacio Farías and Thomas Bender, Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (London: Routledge, 2010). We are clearly at a moment when the distinctiveness of “the urban” is once again being brought into question.12Ryan Bishop and John W.P. Phillips, “The Urban Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society 30: 7/8 (2013), 221-241. 13Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Where is Urban Politics?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38: 5 (2014), 1551-1560. And while Lefebvre’s original French La Révolution Urbaine went relatively underappreciated, in the wake of its translation, its premises seem to have been given new life through the notion of “planetary urbanization” advanced by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid.14e.g. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19: 2-3 (2015), 151-182.

Let me briefly examine this notion of planetary urbanization. Brenner and Schmid argue that celebratory discourses of the so-called “urban age” have returned to the problematic notion of “the city” as a discrete spatial category. They point to some convincing examples: discourses around creativity, in which cities figure as hubs of proximate innovation; discourses around smart cities, in which the urban is a testing ground for new software and hardware; or ideas of urban sustainability, in which cities are the fulcrum for combating climate change. The problem with such discourses, suggest Brenner and Schmid, is that they take the urban or “the city” as a self-evident empirical object. Drawing inspiration from Lefebvre, they argue that we instead deploy the urban as a productive theoretical abstraction. Not of a bounded unit or thing, but a process with amorphous, relational and unbounded reach.

Now, this notion of planetary urbanization has generated criticisms, with which I share some sympathies. For one, we cannot ignore that singular concepts such as “the city”15Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson, “Beyond City Limits: A Conceptual and Political Defense of ‘the City’ as an Anchoring Concept for Critical Urban Theory” City 19: 5 (2015), 646-664. – or for that matter “the media”16Nick Couldry, “Does ‘the Media’ Have a Future?” European Journal of Communication 24:4 (2009), 437-449. – are objects and subjects of all manner of public concern and political contestation. I am also wary, as a scholar interested in phenomenology and ethnography, of many aspects of Brenner and Schmid’s urban political economy approach. It seems to aspire to a kind of master-combinative explanatory framework for approaching urbanism wherever it is found or studied. Yet conceiving of the urban as processual, amorphous, relational and unbounded – rather than as a thing – is, I think, a useful provocation for our discussion on the urban as an emergent key concept for media theory. It’s not so much that this idea gives media theory a better definition of what the urban is. That would make the same mistake as positing a highly refined, discrete definition of media as texts or forms extrinsic to milieus of action, something which has been much criticised in recent turns to theorizing media phenomenologically and in terms of practices.17Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers, “Theorizing Media Phenomenologically,” in Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media, ed. Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers (New York: Peter Lang, 2017 forthcoming). Rather, it clarifies why urbanization might be a useful heuristic for understanding media, where we might go to study urbanized media, and how we might do so methodologically.

In addressing why the urban might be a helpful concept for media theory, we might first question whether it is helpful at all. After all, media theory has also undergone a veritable spatial turn, which arguably already affords us a more general and flexible set of concepts than the urban. Lefebvre himself moved on from The Urban Revolution to write his better known book The Production of Space,18 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). a philosophy of spatiality much less reliant on the urban question per se. I would suggest, however, that the conceptual slipperiness of “urban” is productive in ways similar to recursive interrogations of “media”. Likewise, the notion of generalized “urbanization” is as productive (and controversial) as generalized “mediatization” – something André Jansson and Giorgia Aiello have already touched upon in their opening essays. The urban is firstly helpful as a sensitizing concept that provokes us to think about media in environmental terms: not as things that impact settings, as if from the outside, but as inherent aspects of environmental experience. But it also suggests more than just thinking about mediated spatiality in general. Thinking about urban space alerts us to questions about the relative intensity and connectivity of media environments.

Thinking about the urban as processual, amorphous, relational and unbounded also provokes critical questions around where we might find media. To be sure, Scott McQuire’s landmark book The Media City19Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage, 2008). starts out from the premise of cities without centers. Yet still, remarkably little research on media and cities seems interested in urban peripheries, however conceived. One notable exception of course is Roger Silverstone’s20Roger Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 1994). use of Raymond Williams’ concept “mobile privatisation”,21Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 1974). to argue that television is a definitively suburban medium, “literally ‘of and for the suburb’”.22Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life, 52. Yet the backdrop for this notion is a rather quintessential Anglo-American image of suburbia. It is not, for instance, the mediated banlieue, favela or township – or even the increasingly dynamic urban peripheries of gentrified and globalized cities in the Global North. It seems important to begin asking where media theory (and urban theory) looks for urbanity, urbanism and urbanization. Why, for example, do self-evidently “urban” phenomena such as lively creative industries, spectacular protests, novel location-based devices or screenic architectures attract so much attention in the media cities literature? And are media cities only found in the Global North? We should reflect critically, in other words, on the degree to which our academic habitus tends to predispose us to go looking for urban media in certain places more than others.

Finally, how might we go about studying the media-urban nexus methodologically? Contemporary approaches to studying urban media are very often ethnographic, and increasingly non-media-centric.23Simone Tosoni and Seija Ridell, “Decentering Media Studies, Verbing the Audience: Methodological Considerations Concerning People’s Uses of Media in Urban Space” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016), 1277-1293. The urban is arguably a key lens for those interested in realizing a “practice turn” in media research. While I applaud this focus, I would also argue that research on urbanized media practices must go beyond the everyday or quotidian. Cities are more than just environments of media use, or venues of media spectatorship. They are also sites of, and for, the layered agencies of media-related organizations, professions, technical systems, codes and infrastructures. This suggests a need to revisit the urban settings of media production. Here, I mean more than production in a narrow sense (e.g. related only to producing media content), but also the production of mediatic platforms, services, infrastructures and architectures. This is not an appeal to think in terms of the “concept city” critiqued by Michel de Certeau24Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91-110. – that is, to adopt uncritically the urban visions of architects, engineers and planners. Rather, it is to recognize that practices of urban media production merit their own ethnographic attention. While this will involve similar “lived” perspectives to those with which we study everyday, mediated urban life, it also demands other sensibilities.25An expanded sense of ‘media practices’ that is able to account for production is especially important. See: Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Media Practices and Urban Politics: Conceptualizing the Powers of the Media-Urban Nexus” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32: 6 (2014), 1054-1070. Listen to a podcast on the paper. Researching media cities demands expanded and retuned methodologies that attend not only to that which is “near” – the fine grain of localized, media life “in the city” – but that which can also be “far” – the organized practical worlds and technical systems of mediated urbanization.

Notes   [ + ]

1. These observations largely draw upon Neil Smith’s revealing foreword found in the first English translation of the book. See: Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), vii–xxiii.
2. Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, 1.
3. Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, 3-4.
4. e.g. Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Blackwell City Reader, ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 103-110.
5. Warren Magnusson, The Search for Political Space: Globalization, Social Movements and the Urban Political Experience (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 123.
6. See foreword in Lefebvre, Urban Revolution, vii–xxiii.
7. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009 [1973]).
8. Manuel Castells, The Urban Question (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970).
9. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge: Polity, 2002).
10. Doreen Massey, World City (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).
11. Ignacio Farías and Thomas Bender, Urban Assemblages: How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies (London: Routledge, 2010).
12. Ryan Bishop and John W.P. Phillips, “The Urban Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society 30: 7/8 (2013), 221-241.
13. Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Where is Urban Politics?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38: 5 (2014), 1551-1560.
14. e.g. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19: 2-3 (2015), 151-182.
15. Mark Davidson and Kurt Iveson, “Beyond City Limits: A Conceptual and Political Defense of ‘the City’ as an Anchoring Concept for Critical Urban Theory” City 19: 5 (2015), 646-664.
16. Nick Couldry, “Does ‘the Media’ Have a Future?” European Journal of Communication 24:4 (2009), 437-449.
17. Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers, “Theorizing Media Phenomenologically,” in Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media, ed. Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers (New York: Peter Lang, 2017 forthcoming).
18. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
19. Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage, 2008).
20. Roger Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 1994).
21. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 1974).
22. Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life, 52.
23. Simone Tosoni and Seija Ridell, “Decentering Media Studies, Verbing the Audience: Methodological Considerations Concerning People’s Uses of Media in Urban Space” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016), 1277-1293.
24. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91-110.
25. An expanded sense of ‘media practices’ that is able to account for production is especially important. See: Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett and Allan Cochrane, “Media Practices and Urban Politics: Conceptualizing the Powers of the Media-Urban Nexus” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32: 6 (2014), 1054-1070. Listen to a podcast on the paper.

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