City Culture Reader

This book is written by Malcom Miles, who is an Urban Researcher and Academician. The book is written in nine broad chapters. They focus on the concepts and themes more than the study of a specific city. It attempts to articulate various interfaces between the city and culture and is written in an interdisciplinary manner. The word ‘interdisciplinary’ means it attempts to read city and culture from other disciplines or views.

The opening chapter discusses the broad question of “what is a city?”. Every disciplinarian would view the city from their own perspective. The work of Edward Soja and other urban scholars from Chicago school of thought began to see questions of the city as an urban structure, or the paradox or play fields for various class of people. It is a place where the dynamic organism meets the social processes. While scholars like George Simmel raised the question if any such thing as urban culture is distinctive like the urban form? Lewis Mumford states that the city is between human culture and urban life. Elisabeth Wilson states that the city is about inequality and division within the urban life and it is where the question of gender becomes critical. Hence each scholar draws their own perspective on defining city and public life

The German school of thought defines culture as a way of life, which is collective and historically evolved, while some scholars call it as collective values of social life or public sphere or culture as values produced within specific historical conditions. The important thing is that when anthropological meaning is overlapped with social or art form, the urban life or culture tends to define certain geographical specifics and not broader concept. The open-endedness parallels that of culture’s anthropological meaning as a set of collective values through which one society is different from other society; hence culture encompasses the several geographical specificities of the society.

George Simmel in the early nineteen centuries remarked that the urban culture is a legitimate object of study. The advent of eighteenth century called upon the culture of autonomy where modern life began to shape the cities and people. The individuals are engulfed into the question of independence with respect to historical thoughts, state, religion or morals and economy. The nineteenth century demanded  functional autonomy, making individuals and cities to be different yet connected. The psychological bases of metropolitan individuality consist in the intensification of stimuli and responses in urban life. The metropolitan conditions create psychological situation and the city sets the contrasting life to the rural set ups. Hence metropolitan conditions extract different kinds of consciousness and that exist in every individual in deep psych and within such set up the money exchange becomes the central force.

The cities are in a constant flux of change. Studying, documenting, analyzing and classifying the process of urban change has been the pre-occupation of urban thinkers. It constantly demonstrates the subtle changes through the process of accretion, addition or demolition. Though such changes appear` to be cosmetic ones but the overall urban structure remain fairly legible in the course of history. The symbolic economies are such cosmetic changes that gives rise to notion of branding of the ‘urban’. Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of ‘symbolic capital’ and Leon Kriers version of ‘symbolic richness’ underlies the apparent renaissance of the city, as discussed by David Harvey. The Sociologist, Sharon Zukin, has recognized the two fundamentals of urban changes, that is political economy and symbolic economy. The former is concerned with material conditions and later is concerned with representation of dominance, culture and power.  

After renaissance of knowledge, colonization process, post-colonization era or feminism, the representation is seen as contested and the identity is formed and not given. The condition in which identity is formed is a complex process and the awareness of the formation of the process is raises the question about what constitute the human subject. Juliet Steyn writes that rethinking identity entails a demand: to split the traditional link between self and identity. Identity is presented as akin to culture, which allows identity. The subject replaces the self as the notion of unified and coherent self-identity, which gives way to negotiation of identity.

The social change and spatial divisions of labour and uneven development of opportunities within the economy affects the men and women in the same region. The gender roles are socially and economically constructed; hence they are contestable. Feminist geography is as much about men as it is about women, ignoring means that we are not here dealing with some essentialism of men and women, but with how they are constructed as such.

The concept of ‘utopia’: a place which is not anywhere or no-place is essentially literary and begins in accounts of the framed. Utopia can take place in any form of social organization, though this tends to follow a pattern of hierarchy. In distinction from the make-do world of reality, it allows a direct relation between the two, so that the built and social architecture resemble each other. Thus, utopia is like aesthetics separated from the rest of life, realm of fantasy which offers a harmony absent in ordinary experiences of urban life. It tends to de-alienate the class and every day.

The term city and culture have multiple meanings and derive particular nuances from the context in which they are used. The book brings fresh and contemporary debate on urban life and culture of cities which remains relevant and especially working in trans-disciplinary on the urban discourse.

Photo Credits: Manoj Parmar Architects

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