Interview with Ryan Bishop on Megacities & Violence

Photo: Ryan Bishop

 The Special Section on Megacities & Violence, edited by Ryan Bishop, will be published in the (running late) November issue of TCS, and will feature articles by Saskia Sassen, Eyal Weizman, Jordan Crandall and Peter Adey.

Simon Dawes interviewed Ryan on the themes of the section. Read more to find out what makes a mega city, what they can tell us about our propensity to violence, and to what extent megacities can unsettle ‘the vertical’


Simon Dawes: What are megacities, and how do they differ from global or modern cities? Is the difference just a question of size, or is it more to with the economic models we use to predict changes to the world’s cities? Or, alternatively, could we say that the urban sprawl of the megacity belongs to a horizontal urban order, in contrast to the vertical order of the global city?

Ryan Bishop: Megacities have long been defined solely on the size of the population. For this section and for the upcoming volume of the New Encyclopaedia Project, we have been trying to think the megacity in other ways while of course taking into account population numbers – ways such as speed: the rapidity of growth and what it does to decision making processes, planning, infrastructure, etc. Another concern is the sites in which these megacities have emerged and their relation to the global order. In important ways, many of these cities serve as an urban hinterland for the more readily identifiable global cities or cosmopolitan centers. They are determined to a large extent by global networks and the nodes contained within them but do not have much of a chance for influencing them: they are a part of these global networks but apart from them. Another way, as you mention, is the unpredictability of their growth (which is related to but different from speed). Most of these cities were not forecast to figure in the largest cities in the world based on models and formulae concocted by urbanists and economists 15-20 years ago, so what happened to cause the sudden rise in population and what are the effects? Because of the rapid sprawl and the almost post facto nature of planning (planning as reaction to conditions rather than as guiding or dictating them) found in many of these sites, they have also become experiments in neoliberal privatization, with often little governmental regulation of economic engagements there. These are some of the issues we are considering.

The vertical order is indeed associated more with the global city and the horizontal with megacity because of the former’s reliance upon control and hierarchically arranged institutions and structures as compared with the rapid, ad hoc nature of emergence in megacities. However, this by no means guarantees that the horizontality of megacities necessarily poses any challenges to the skilled negotiations of power that allow global cities hegemony – in fact, perhaps, just the opposite, as with the constitution of these sites that are essentially unregulated and ungoverned free-for-alls that can be productive of capital growth, as well as all the potential for rapacious exploitation that offers.

SD: Is verticality necessarily militaristic – does the aerial (bird’s eye view) always entail control? And what is the relationship between horizontal and vertical orders in the context of the megacity – in what ways does the horizontal aid, and in what ways does it unsettle, the vertical?

RB: No, verticality is not necessarily militaristic. However it is so closely connected to the ancient military strategy dictum about claiming the higher ground that it slides really easily over to military appropriation and deployment. As Virilio argues at length, the entire range of tele-optics, from photography to cinema to satellites, has been developed alongside of and in cooperation with military institutions and researchers, so separating out that history from the potential uses to which these apparatuses may be put to use. The aerial view, on the other hand, almost always implies and entails control, though it need not be control of populations and space for any reasons other than aesthetic. That said, the relationship between the aesthetic and the military is itself deep and complex, as John Phillips and I argue in our new book (Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception. Edinburgh UP: 2010).

The bird’s-eye view is also the gods’ eye-view and has long been associated with the ways in which space is metaphorized to articulate symbolic relations (as in hierarchical arrangements). Thus while no necessity determines that verticality or the aerial view be conflated with or mobilized for power, control, and perhaps domination, the discursive, material and technological trajectories that led to aerial perspectives and their desirability are inextricably intertwined with these effects. When it comes to the megacity, the sprawl tends to be horizontal, primarily due to lack of capital for other kinds of structures as well as to the informal ways in which urban areas incorporate rural ones. The horizontal can attempt to unsettle the verticality of control but more often than not, it merely is incorporated into vertical structures and systems.

The example cited in the section’s introduction is that of the internet. It was developed as ARPANET by the military in order to provide a communications system that can withstand nuclear attack, which is why information is bundled into many redundant packets that circulate and are stored in more than one site. The military understands that verticality has some strengths but that it also has some weaknesses. The internet attempted to address from a defensive position the dangers posed by “taking out the head” — in this case of a communications system. If the command and control center is located in one spot, then it is vulnerable. Dispersing it makes successful attack more difficult. This was in fact one of the rationales — one of many, it should be added — for suburban sprawl in post-WWII America. Norbert Weiner and other MIT profs proposed “ringed cities” as a means of civil defense (here they were taking a page out of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” that he flogged to Mussolini and others during the war). These “ringed cities” would use highways and green belts to insulate and isolate family dwelling spaces. These drawings, plans and arguments were published in Life magazine in an article entitled “How the US Can Prepare for Atomic War” 18 December 1950, a little Christmas gift for the population as nascent Cold Warriors and targets.

In these instances, the horizontal is being deployed in a strategic fashion, that is for specific instrumental concerns and larger results. These results themselves articulate the goals of a vertical command structure within the military. So these kinds of systems or strategies or technologies might have the appearance of undermining or unsettling traditional command modes and relationships, but in actuality they are complementary. In effect, I would say, that for the most part, the vertical and the horizontal work together to achieve vertical goals. In the case of the megacity, writ large, it would be in the service of the dominant global political economy and how the megacity site engages and relates to it, depends on it, yet influences it very little. In each of the examples I have listed here, it is important to bear in mind the very basic relations between material conditions and the immaterial concerns they manifest and represent.

SD: Where does violence come into all this? It’s not that megacities are always violent, and that non-megacities are without violence, is it? So what role does violence play in megacities, and why the need for a special section on Megacities & Violence?

RB: I would respond to the initial question with a question of my own: Where doesn’t violence come into all of this? Violence is ubiquitous, all the time. However, I wish to assert that I strongly believe that violence in all its myriad and oppressive forms has never had more or less purchase in any temporal-spatial configuration than in any other – as Walt Whitman writes, “And [there] will never be any more perfection than there is now,/Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.” So the section does not argue that there is necessarily more or different or exotic violence in megacities, nor does it say that megacities are the only urban formations that have violence; that would be just plain silly. But as the most recent and perhaps most influential kind of urban formation at the moment — the one that seems to indicate best the urban future — megacities afford a new lens for examining what remains one of the most tenacious and disturbing aspects of ourselves: our propensity to violence. The systematic and routinized violence operative at all levels of a culture or society, the sudden mass flare-ups, the mobilization of sectarian hatred, the manipulation of economic disparity and the fears emergent from it, state-sponsored attacks on foreign civilians, long-standing disputes of territory or resources, high-tech targeting from within a city or from the other side of the globe – all of these and many more are forms of violence often operating side by side, or in a complementary fashion, in megacities. Perhaps this rather stunning range is new, but I would not feel comfortable asserting such a position – not now anyway. As such megacities become truly and unfortunately productive sites for examining violence. They are a prompt to rethink, yet again, a constant in human existence that nonetheless always emerge from, but are not reducible to, specific conditions of possibility operative at a given place and time. Violence is a phenomenon everyone claims to want obliterated and yet we continue to perpetuate on grand and quotidian scales alike.

SD: You also co-edited (with Tania Roy) the TCS Special Section on Mumbai: City as Target (published in TCS 26.7/8, Dec 2009), and you’re co-editing (with John Phillips, Mike Featherstone and Couze Venn) a double TCS Special Issue on Megacities (to be published sometime in the near future), that is the second volume of the New Encyclopaedia Project. How does this section stand in relation to, and apart from, these two publications, and could you tell us a little about each of the contributors to this section on Megacities & Violence?

RB: Yes this section sits firmly between the one on Mumbai I co-edited with Tania Roy and the forthcoming NEP volume, which has been many years in the works and involving a lot of effort and contribution from many scholars all over the world. It is being edited by John Phillips, Mike Featherstone, Couze Venn and me. Mumbai was yet another sad example of targeting that is endemic to cities, no matter their classification. Cities attract attention, desired and not – that is, in fact, part of their intended (but also unintentional) purpose. In antiquity, indeed in the oldest secular text in the Western canon, The Iliad, Homer makes this point central to human organization. It remains true today, perhaps more so.

Because I had worked on “the city as target” in a number of different venues with a whole host of scholars, including the initial piece by Greg Clancey and me entitled “The City-as-Target, or Perpetuation and Death” (in Bishop, Phillips and Yeo, eds. Postcolonial Urbanism: Southeast Asian Cities and Globalization Processes, NY and London: Routledge, 2003) which discussed, amongst other points, the lack of academic inquiry into urbacide (the strategic killing of cities) which was, after all, the express purpose of Cold War technology, strategy and practice. Vast sums spent over decades were directed toward the potential killing of cities on a global scale of real-time simultaneity, yet the impact of the Cold War on urban scholarship has been minimal at best. In the updated Cold War, sometimes called but less so now the “War on Terror,” the specifics and the generalities of the Mumbai attacks afforded a moment of reflection and engagement. And the section drew on other sites to make synchronic links. Mumbai is clearly a site that can be called a megacity, and will be addressed to an extent in the NEP volume (which cannot be comprehensive because it would be impossible for it to be so). Thus this section gave me a chance to think through a host of issues with some excellent colleagues and come up with a proleptic gesture toward the NEP volume while also linking back to not only the Mumbai section with Tania, but a whole host of work I have been involved with directly as well as that which has shaped these research agendas.

Many of my closest colleagues have been working for quite some time on urbanization processes and violence. Many of us have been influenced by Paul Virilio to consider the simultaneous and interrelated nature of modern and contemporary city formation, opto-electronic technologies, and military technologies as purveyor and generator of the latter in an attempt to control the former. Anyone born after the advent of World War II, or who grew up during it, which is an increasing majority, has been essentially born with a target on her/his forehead. This is a somewhat unsettling realization for many who believe they live in and/or were raised in “peace-loving” countries.

Each of the contributors to this section has responded to the immanence of violence in daily life by examining it through the site of megacities, which share phenomena globally with almost all city formations. Each of these scholars is involved with the NEP volume and is contributing to it. (Click here to see photos of some of the contributors to the recent Megacities at Irvine event.)

Saskia Sassen needs no introduction when it comes to urban studies. After establishing some parameters for thinking though the category of the global city and establishing it as a research site, she has moved on to other more current manifestations and is especially interested in their relation to violence in the form of militarization. Saskia never sits still and is always pushing the envelope for urban studies research, which is why having her in both the section and the volume is not only fun and invigorating but necessary. She is mostly at Columbia these days. (To read Saskia Sassen’s article, ‘When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War’, go here)

Eyal Weizman goes way back on the city as target work, having participated in the workshop we held in Singapore on this topic and generated by the article by Greg Clancey and me. (Other participants included Pal Alhuwalia, John Armitage, Greg Clancey, Verena Conley, Jordan Crandall, Robbie Goh, Steve Graham, Rajeev Patke, John Phillips, Sharon Traweek and many others.) And Eyal has been involved in many of the Megacity colloquia in London and Johannesburg and elsewhere. He is one of the most innovative and controversial theoreticians on space working today. An Israeli architect who systematically and ruthlessly works the strategies of spatial manipulation and oppression operative in the Palestinian conflict, Eyal’s work keeps an even moral keel while sustaining a razor-sharp capacity of analysis. He teaches at Goldsmiths, where he heads up an excitingly experimental architectural program. (To read Eyal Weizman’s article, ‘Legislative Attack’, go here)

Jordan Crandall, too, has been involved with the city as target work as early as the Singapore workshop, and he is deeply involved in the NEP megacities volume too. He is a visual artist who teaches in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego. Deeply interested in critical theory, Jordan’s art work investigates theory while at the same time he uses theory to shape his artistic vision. Jordan ran a series of online discussions with scholars all over the world that pertain very closely to the issues in this section; they were called “Under Fire” and have been published through one of his galleries. (To read Jordan Crandall’s article, ‘The Geospatialization of Calculative Operations: Tracking, Sensing and Megacities’, go here)

Peter Adey is also going to be a contributor to the NEP megacities volume. He is a Lecturer in Cultural Geography at Keele University and has been working on forms of surveillance, security, and militarized responses to global threats. A related set of research areas include mobilities and futures. His interest in spatial manifestations of control and resistance means that he fit the brief of the section perfectly. I am really pleased with all of their contributions, and am deeply honoured to have edited a section with such a terrific collection of scholars, colleagues and friends. (To read Peter Adey’s article, Vertical Security in the Megacity: Legibility, Mobility and Aerial Politics’, go here)

Ryan Bishop teaches in the Dept. of English at the National University of Singapore. He has published on critical theory, literature, aesthetics, military technology, urbanisim and international sex tourism. His most recent books include the edited collection Baudrillard Now (2009 Polity) and Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception (co-authored with John Phillips, Edinburgh UP). He is editor of the Theory Now series for Polity, and with Mike Featherstone, Couze Venn and John Phillips, co-edits the New Encyclopaedia Project.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

The Special Section on Megacities & Violence, edited by Ryan Bishop, will be published in TCS 27.6 any day now

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