Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

By Gyan Prakash | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Living in Dystopia:
Past, Present, and Future in Contemporary African Cities

JENNIFER ROBINSON

Fictional dystopias generally portray imaginary places. And yet one of the common strategies of the genre is to create plausible futures, taking the reader from a more or less recognizable present into a future that might be. The principal dynamic for the production of a fictional dystopic “elsewhere,” then, is a temporal shift drawing the present into the future.1 In Western-based urban studies the recent deployment of dystopic narrative forms has merged with decades-old habits of projecting a host of unwanted (if not unimaginable) features of cities onto an “elsewhere,” but an elsewhere that has been largely spatially rather than temporally defined. According to the founding fathers of urban studies, cities were to leave behind the folk cultures and practices of sociability and interaction that characterized life in agricultural or preindustrial communities. These features were also to be found in the present, in “backward” cultures located in contemporaneous but geographically distant elsewheres, largely in poorer, colonized places and imaginatively strongly associated with Africa. Park, Simmel, Benjamin, and Wirth all built urban theory by casting features they declared to be non-urban into the realm of “tribes,” “kraals,” and “primitives,” both spatially (over there) and temporally (back then) elsewhere.2 For current-day dystopic urban writers, it is once again Africa that carries the burden of imaginative spatial and temporal projection. But now this involves casting (mostly African) poorer cities as the future of all cities. What this means is that according to some of the most prominent urbanists of our time, many millions of people are already living in dystopia.

This essay takes as its starting point this observation: that the deployment of a dystopic narrative structure in contemporary urban studies rests on the assumption that the urban condition in many places is already dystopic. Rather than dystopia being an imaginative place we might arrive at some day depending on the political choices we make, in this genre people

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