Tarifa Zero Sao Paulo / Gianluca Ramaho Misiti / flickr.com

The Urban Liaison

An interview with AbdouMaliq Simone on the cities of the Global South by Eduardo Cassina

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An interview with AbdouMaliq Simone

An interview by Eduardo Cassina

The first time I heard of Professor AbdouMaliq Simone was in the context of selecting courses in urban sociology at my university. Syllabi were structured around topics such as ‘Re-making urban life from Dakar to Guangzhou’ or ‘Inventive Methods for Researching the City’ that consisted of literature that stepped out of the norm in so far as urban studies go. It was from those class descriptions that I knew that these courses had been designed with the ambition to address traditional academic voids that historically had relegated non-Western urban enclaves to the research periphery.

These courses, designed by Prof. Simone, were not only provocative but also open minded in the sense that they provided a new imagery of cities, a new language to talk about the urban fabric. Yet, two years of urban research later, I still had not met with AbdouMaliq in person, but only through his recorded lectures, and numerous and poetic texts; the reason probably being his nomadic ways: as an urbanist and research professor at the University of South Australia and professor of sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, visiting professor at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, research associate with the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, and research fellow at the University of Tarumanagara.

For over three decades he has worked at the intersection of social interchange, cognition, local economies and their effects in the multiple African and South East Asian cities where he has lived. Throughout his career he has built a body of academic knowledge that not only has been pioneering in the dissection of urban matrixes outside places that had previously monopolised academic discourses, but also in establishing collaborative partnerships among different urban actors.

Our planet is increasingly multi-vocal, as countries of the former ‘Global South’ emerge as powerful economies and cultural vehicles. Yet some of those voices remain silenced, particularly in certain academic discourses around urbanism, which are still centred in a very particular version of urban history/histories. It is in this context of a world in change that I feel that these voices should now be given space and attention, and learnt from in analysing the myriad of realities that they offer us.
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Professor AbdouMaliq Simone, looking at multiple indicators, from demographics to economic growth to new cultural signifiers, we can assess that the world is becoming increasingly multi-​polar: the former ‘Global South’ is an increasingly important actor, taking some of the spotlight that until now was reserved for the North Atlantic rim. How do you think that this shift from one dominant voice to a multiplicity of voices will translate into urban form?

Certainly, we live in an ironic period at the moment: cities from the apparent ‘South’ begin to get such play and are being paid attention to in terms of urban theory, specially when looking at different possibilities of urban form. However, what is interesting is that this ‘Global South urban form’ in some ways disappears… or might not have been there to begin with. I think it remains in some ways uncertain the reasons to what extent this disappearance is a strategic one, or political or demographic…

But then, what do you do with the residual reality of cities like Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Mexico City or Lagos? I mean, they still have a similar affective quality, at the surface it does feel continuous, but it doesn’t transfer when you try to speak specifically: What are the homologous connections between these cities and on which criteria have they been drawn? You have to be very careful about the assumptions that you make in Jakarta and that you try to impose in Sao Paulo, because it doesn’t hold.

This is in some ways because cities in the former South didn’t get their due, and now that they are getting their due, the kind of coordinates that allow a kind of sense of articulation amongst them disappears. So it is a conundrum in some way… but I think it is a conundrum that can’t be simply resolved by the kind of notions of planetary urbanisation.

I agree with you that it is not possible to talk about a homogenised ‘urban form’ for cities just because they are part of the former ‘Global South’… however, I am interested in the residual sectors that remain that feel similar and yet are very different, because at the same time I feel that there are other sectors that feel different but in reality are different… I am thinking of new shopping centres or gated communities, landscapes that are part of a neo-​liberal capitalist trend, diffusing certain identities and establishing hegemonic forms of power…

Structurally, capital operates in a way that engenders very different kinds of trajectories within metropolitan areas, becoming much more difficult for people to have a sense of what it is that they have in common

Well, yes. I think that within cities, within places like Jakarta and Bangkok, Sao Paulo, … the sort of major metropolitan areas that I am familiar with, there is a sense of actors and processes moving away from each other, structurally and processually, over a long period of time. And as you say, smaller aspects of the territory of these cities seem to be standing for the city as a whole; and therefore acting as the embodiment of recipients of articulations of a larger global system. Structurally, capital operates in a way that engenders very different kinds of trajectories within metropolitan areas, making it much more difficult for people to have a sense of what it is that they have in common.

And the problem is that if you can’t assume a kind of common ground, understanding that you all exist in the same place, then circulation becomes a very critical value. In these fragmented cities, circulation is key because you need to be able to move between those different enclaves and aspects that make up the city that you can no longer count upon to be cohered in an overarching way, because you don’t have a language for it anymore. So when circulation is blocked and stopped, you are cornered; which is what a city, and people, want to avoid. Look at Sao Paulo with the incremental bus fair rise of last June. So yes, on the one hand there are people and actors moving away from each other.

Yet, on the other hand, you find in the kind of urban political specifics of different cities that developers, workers, municipal governments, NGOs, activists and commerçants are trying in their own ways to make a concerted effort to re-​reach each other. I mean, even the most self-​interested land developers, which are normally the elite of capital within these cities for the former South, are realising more than they ever did before that this kind of disjunction, this process of things moving away from each other, in the long run jeopardises their own interests.

Thus, I think there is a growing awareness and dissatisfaction, amongst a lot of different kinds of actors, each in their own way, that this distance has exceeded what is in some ways workable as to how they can continue to operate in these cities, even according to their own interests and terms.

Thamrin Residence Complex in Jakarta / PT Jakarta Realty Group / flickr.com

Thamrin Residence Complex in Jakarta /​PT Jakarta Realty Group /​flickr​.com

I guess this incremental distancing between different actors and territories then means that what you once said, ‘the city is a means of dispersal of identities’ seems to be an urban quality in jeopardy, begging questions of how identities will be built in these fragmented landscapes. I understand the tension between the distancing and multiple actors trying to bring segments closer together, but I have also witnessed the pulling apart.

You are right, there are some contradictory movements regarding this. I mean in terms of formatted urban development certainly the move is toward the ongoing construction of what some of us would call the ‘all in one’, which are all-​inclusive domains that combine residence with work, leisure, education and services.

Yet, what is contradictory, is that the selling point of these ‘all in one’ modes of inhabitation, is accompanied by the sense of ‘being a part of the world’, yet a participation that doesn’t require the labour intensive day in and day out problems and negotiations of traffic and neighbours… of cities, basically. At the same time these places build an abstracted world, giving you a sense that you are closer to those that live in similar ‘all in ones’, no matter their geographic location. This abstraction continues if you begin to look at the internal dynamics of some of these ‘all in one’ environments, where people themselves find ways in which to re-​differentiate these rather homogenous places.

What then do you reckon was the basis of their inhabitation in the first place?

Well, I think the inhabitants of these spaces had acquired some capability to deal with the environments of various kinds of realities, and so, in some ways, these become environments of cognitive atrophy. They are set up to create a global urban subject, or at least a global urban mode of operation, but in the end what takes place is a kind of atrophy process, which can’t be simply compensated for by a facility dealing with social media, or different kinds of cognitive informatic environments. But perhaps the most interesting aspect is that we are able in some ways to see the beginnings of concern among many different kinds of actors, particularly around the idea of compartmentalisation of the urban matrix, which undermines the very kind of reason why this place was a city to begin with.

It is interesting, because I would argue that the paradox of urban fragmentation is also a tension that can be observed and projected at a trans-​national scale: on the one hand there seem to be territories that are merging, international frontiers becoming increasingly porous or altogether dissolved. However, on the other hand, certain borders seem to be turning more opaque and closed. Cities in general have often undermined and challenged national borders, creating bridges between different urban enclaves, apparently bypassing national delimitations. However, with the increasing of restrictions on international travel for certain actors, perhaps cities will lose this quality. What impact do you think this will have on the future of cities?

The predominant and former modes of articulation and interchange were largely defined by colonial relations or particular histories of mercantile transactions, and were symbolically the most charged vehicles of access. However, even the blockage of these trajectories does not necessarily mean a blockage of mobility, particularly in the context of departures and arrivals in many African contexts.

It doesn’t seem as if the capacity to track, to survey and, particularly, to block, diminishes the intensity of the motivation to be different or to find oneself in a different location

But whereas departures and arrivals might not be minimised, it does mean that the temporalities of journeys, and their paths, change and become more incremental. They are much more difficult to track, new forms of zigzagging emerge. New roads whose materialities and, thus, advocacy, can change quite quickly in terms of who gets access to what kind of places and what kinds of opportunities. So this then, in some ways, spurs different kinds of association, different kinds of alliances that become much more provisional, and with the acuity of surveillance mechanisms, much more easily closed down at speed. But you then have a different kind of morphology of relationalities, in terms of the connections between them leave from where they find themselves at any point in time, where their possible destinations are, and where they end up, if anywhere specific.

But it doesn’t seem as if the capacity to track, to survey and, particularly, to block, diminishes the intensity of the motivation to be different or to find oneself in a different location. It is just that the mechanisms, the temporality, the number of people involved, the work, the effort, the value, the manipulations, all of these intensifies in different ways.

One Nation under CCTV  / Adam Bowie / flickr.com

One Nation under CCTV /​Adam Bowie /​flickr​.com

But don’t you think that the need to find yourself in a different location, can be somewhat facilitated and/​or substituted by new forms of interactions: social media networks, Skype, etc.? Don’t you think these also have an effect on the mobility of people?

I am not sure. I mean, the engagement with various mediatic tools is put into service of the ability to physically move. The way in way which Skype communications, for example, are intense zones of enticement, of appeal, of seduction, of invitation, are put into service of facilitating physical movement. Whether or not they supplant and obviate either the need or desire for it, I am not so sure.

True, but I think that these virtual realities also play a big role in the projection of these trans-​national trajectories, perhaps even substituting some of them, but they also have an effect on how we navigate the city.

Well, at a practical level, when people still want to get things done, still these old formats of conference, and workshops, travel, and going places, still prevail for most sectors of life. Physically moving.

The thing is that if you are right, that in some ways cities themselves are becoming much more compartmentalised with people finding themselves in ‘micro-​niche’ kinds of situations and activities, this sense still amplifies a notion of a world that goes beyond them. I mean, even for me, who is very curious about a lot of different things, I have available to me a certain amount of tools with which I can explore this curiosity and I can quickly switch back and forth between different kinds of cultural expressions, different locations, different histories. What these Internet communication platforms do is amplify in me the sense of a world beyond me, which makes my hunger and desire even more insatiable. But I also feel I need to then be somewhere, to touch it in some way, to intersect with these other realities.

So yes, in some ways the domain of these other virtual mediatic realities can create a sense of travel in their own terms, and, as you say, modify journeys; but also ironically, they may engender a desire for physical movement as well.

You just talked about your curiosity as a trigger to move and explore new realities… I wanted to ask you about your process as an urban professional, and one of the pioneers and experts in analysing cities in the former Global South. When the road is so little explored, how do you decide what to focus on, what to research?

My emphasis with African cities was trying to counter a popular discourse; until at least 10 years ago, African majors continued to go around saying that Africa was a rural continent

For most of my career I have tried to pay attention to aspects that tend to be left out of the dominant analytical narratives. I mean, in my emphasis with African cities I was trying to counter a popular discourse: until at least 10 years ago, African mayors continued to go around saying that Africa is a rural continent, ‘we don’t have cities,’ ‘we don’t have people who know how to live in cities’. My intention was to challenge that dialectic, because it had real effects in terms of funding, in terms of international relationships or governmental policy, by looking at the various advocacies that seem to exist within different African cities.

In recent years I have tried to pay attention to the claim that ‘the middle class has left the city’, particularly in South East Asian cities, which has resulted in the literature focusing on urban elites or the poor. The middle seemed invisible. My research in Jakarta has been focusing on documenting that middle class, which remains the majority of the city, yet it is a majority that operates like a Deleuzian minority in a way, as it doesn’t have a kind of mode of expression or a clear narrative in which to elaborate itself.

In some ways, I try to look at the absences, what I see the as the kind of wrong assumptions within urban policy or urban analytical literature… to fill those gaps to assert that it could be something else.

Johannesburg at Dusk / Roger R Gordon / flickr.com

Johannesburg at Dusk /​Roger R Gordon /​flickr​.com

Your research is based on addressing, filling and correcting analytical and discursive gaps, but how do you see yourself as a professional? I mean, as cities are changing, so is the role of the urbanist, as new actors appear, as new forms of informal settlements and, to a certain extent, grassroots governance in pockets emerge, what will the role of the urbanist be in the future?

I think that we have reached a point when urbanists will probably have to participate in the interaction between different actors that are trying to come to grips with a situation that exceeds the terms of their own intelligibility. We are now bringing into closer proximity operations and materials about the city, and it is the measuring and calculating of their impact upon each other that is revealing new information. But then, you bring together in the room engineers, sanitation experts, food specialists, social services personnel… Professionals from so far across the gamut of urban life that they don’t know quite what to say to each other.

In other words, the stringency is that you develop these modes of calculation and probability and decision support that bring into close proximity very divergent elements and forms of urban life, and try to measure their impact upon each other… and yet the actors that are supposedly associated with these divergent elements do not know what to say to each other, how to talk to each other. So in some sense an urbanist project should elaborate a mode of conveyance, a communication. In some sense it is at that border, in those interstices, where we find that kind of task or project for the urbanist.

So the urbanist becomes a kind of liaison between different actors…

Yes, I guess a liaison is an accurate way to describe it… a liaison, a trickster, a kind of mediator of some kind… something like this. I mean, given just the basic kind of political exigencies that seem to exist between getting things done and making decisions about individual urban futures.