Postcolonial Urbicide: New Imperialism, Global Cities and the Damned of the Earth

Article excerpt


Armoured Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers tearing down neighbourhoods in Gaza; liberators of Iraq firing at local crowds in the streets of Fallujah; 'swarming' Israeli soldiers 'walking through walls' in the enemy territory of Nablus (1)--these recurrent images and narratives from the Middle East suggest something more than regrettable yet inevitable 'collateral damage' in a 'war on terrorism', as the Pentagon or the Israeli Defense Force would have it. They point rather to an ominously normalised reality experienced by the 'damned of the earth' after the 'end of history', which has summoned a new keyword in urban studies and allied disciplines: urbicide. (2) Although what exactly is being killed in such acts of urbicide remains a matter of dispute among geographers, planners, architects and other academics engaged with this potentially radical concept, there can be little doubt as to what it means to the inhabitants of quite a few battered cities now unwittingly lined up on the wrong side of a bloody 'clash of civilizations': a mockery of their political sovereignty, a brutal destruction of their socio-spatial infrastructures of resistance to the latest manifestations of imperialism, and a cruel militarisation of their everyday life in the name of human rights, democracy and a few other inviolate 'western values' including tolerant, multicultural and diverse cities.


If this is what urbicide--the killing of cities--means today, then we should like to think that the actuality of new imperialism it designates matters not only to students of cities, but also to those exponents of postcolonial theory who are still mindful of--and opposed to--the contemporaneity of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. We say this as scholars primarily involved with urban theory while maintaining a keen interest in the promise of postcolonial studies, in spite of our doubts about the latter's difficulties in engaging adequately with the economics, politics and cultures of colonialism and anti-colonialism, even within the limited realm of 'cultural studies'. There is no need here to rehearse all of the telling criticisms directed at the mainstream currents of postcolonial theory by such diverse critics as Aijaz Ahmad, Himani Bannerji, Arif Dirlik, Neil Lazarus, Benita Parry, Sumit Sarkar and the late Michael Sprinker. We make no secret here of our solidarity with the shared spirit of these critiques, which point to postcolonial theory's accommodation with capitalism, crippling culturalism, deification of differance and 'Orientalism-in-reverse'--characterised, especially in its influential Indian clique, by a flat-footed grasp of modernity as well as a predilection for uncritical celebrations of tradition and religiosity. More generally, postcolonial theory dwelling in metropolitan universities represents 'a cause without a rebel' (3)--a theory unable to find anyone to raise its banner in the streets where anti-colonialism, Marxism, feminism and other radical ideas have all rallied mass support, and is unlikely suddenly to find a useful role in emerging anti-imperialist politics short of a major reorientation. But to the extent that the sharpening of anti-imperialist sensibilities around the world 'after Iraq' may now be capable of diverting postcolonial studies towards anti-systemic politics, we agree with the suggestion of Crystal Bartolovich, Neil Lazarus and others that it is better to engage and appropriate this contested field of study from radical perspectives opposed to capitalism and imperialism as well as other oppressive social relations, rather than to let all of it lapse into yet another toothless discourse of identity and difference or, worse, the kind of cultural-nationalist reconciliation of 'gods and men' dreamed by Dipesh Chakrabarty's naively celebrated work Provincializing Europe. (4)

The contemporary reality of urbicide provides us with the occasion for precisely such an encounter, albeit one that calls for a critique of not only postcolonial theory, but also urban studies. …


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