African Centre for Cities researcher James Duminy reflects on his experience of the ACC International Urban Conference which took place from 1 to 3 February 2018 at the University of Cape Town. 

The ACC 2018 International Urban Conference was an important experience for me, both intellectually and personally. The many sessions and discussions once again highlighted some of the key themes and debates around how we understand urban realities in many different parts of the world.

One of the main issues at stake is the way that we envision and apply universal principles and concepts in our work.

This problem emerges from critiques made of dominant Western or Northern modes of producing urban knowledge – modes that aspire to universal relevance and applicability, generating ideas and ‘theories’ that supposedly transcend issues of locality and difference.

In the fields of urban studies and theory, we see this concern with ‘universality’ appearing in various ways. For instance, can or should we understand urban changes everywhere as variegated expressions of a central capitalist logic of ‘planetary urbanisation’? Or, should we rather understand all cities in terms of a universal theoretical framework comprising dynamics of agglomeration, polarisation and the ‘urban land nexus’? Are all cities simply ‘ordinary’, deserving to be studied as such, with ideas and methods attuned to that individualised task? Or, are there specific dynamics that, at a conceptual level, tie together urban places and processes within Africa, or within the global South more generally?

Once we start to think about the ways in which ideas about cities emerge and travel between different contexts, we are led ask important questions about their appropriateness. How do we apply an urban concept in a setting with very different characteristics from that concept’s time and place of origin? Do we need entirely new ideas and methods – ones more suited to the specificities of African or Southern cities – or can we mobilise existing approaches in new and better ways?

These are some of the pressing challenges facing urban scholars, particularly those writing from Africa and the global South. Yet this problem of how we approach universalism comprises more than how we ‘theorise’ our cities and urban realities. There are also important political implications. In one of the closing sessions of the Conference, Mark Swilling warned about what he perceived as the dangers of ‘structural fetishism’. This term describes a tendency to think in terms of structural determinants and means of change – the notion that individual urban events and actions must be subsumed within their wider structural (political, economic, social) context. In this view, local or small-scale interventions are meaningless (at worst, harmful) unless they ultimately critique and shift the wider structural context in which we exist. Swilling instead called for a renewed form of ‘incrementalism’ – urban actions that prod, experiment and build reflexively on one another – rather than grand plans of transformation.

Swilling’s call made me think about the nature of this political moment, in which we seek to produce urban knowledge, and how that moment shapes our acts as researchers and practitioners.

I asked myself: How do we approach structural thinking after the end of the Cold War and official Apartheid, and as we slide towards a future that appears to be increasingly fascist and post-capitalist? Can or should we think of ‘structures’ in different (perhaps less universalistic) ways? Is the incremental impulse merely the final ideological triumph of late capitalism? Can it deliver better urban futures amid the seeming might of entrenched interests? What are the ethical implications of these dilemmas and choices?

In opening the Conference, Edgar Pieterse claimed the ACC’s ambition to be one of navigating a third space between the ‘dogmatism’ of structural Marxism and the self-confidence of ‘best practice’ policy prescriptions. I wondered how I should go about working at this interface between critique and proposition. How can I find my own moral, political and intellectual trajectory within these coordinates? What forms could a proposition take?

It is no simple task to tread a path between (what are perceived to be) very different intellectual and political projects. Very few precedents exist. One way out of this standoff, for Pieterse, is by exploring artistic practices of urbanism. Artistic registers, in this view, allow us to move beyond the ostensible choice between being purely critical or instrumental in our work. They enable us to balance competing demands for the radically new and for everyday pragmatism. Art can give us a glimpse of what truly interdisciplinary urban work could be. In essence, this is a very modernist impulse: the notion that aesthetic potentiality can deliver us from the confines of political impossibility.

This emphasis on art was a thread running throughout the Conference. But it left me slightly uncomfortable. Art might have the potential to open up new directions for critique and intervention, but in my view there are also pitfalls. In principle, art enables us to think about ‘intervention’ beyond a narrow normative frame of what we ought to be doing. Put differently, it invites us to think about city-making outside the moral frames of basic standards, ethical compliance forms, standard research methods, conventional human rights, and so on. Yet one of the ironies of the ‘Southern turn’ in urban studies is that just as scholars increasingly look for artistic inspiration in critique, knowledge and proposition, they are largely unwilling to engage with ethical questions, to think about the ethics of city-making beyond a normative domain. They stop short of interrogating the ethical implications of artistic practice writ large upon the city.

Are we willing to go that far? Or, are we more willing to let art do that work for us? If we are wary of this difficult ethical work, then I fear that artistic registers, for all their promise of transversal innovation, may in fact leave us with less of a sense of how we ought to act. I worry that we will simply defer the messy question of how we should arrive at normative judgements to the prescriptions of arch-discourses of inalienable rights and standards, being content, in the meantime, to enjoy the catharsis of the artwork.

Art may inspire people to do great things. It can also evoke feelings of inadequacy (during one of the keynote presentations on urban artistic interventions, I jotted down: ‘How the f*** am I meant to do that?’). Moreover, it can satisfy our psychological yearnings for change – in ourselves and in the world around us – without us having to actually be involved. Engaging with art can have many potential effects, not all of them positive. So, what specific roles do we imagine for artistic practice within our urban projects of ‘critical propositionality’? Should art seek to convey simple moral truths? Should it reveal the conditions and aspirations of African urban denizens? Should it unravel or objectify the ethical dilemmas of practice? Should it be an experimental testing ground for the ideas and practices we use to generate knowledge, without the constraints of a university’s procedures for ethical research clearance? These are some of the questions that the Conference left with me.

Pieterse began the Conference proceedings by giving thanks. He offered thanks to those who came before us, and on whom we depend. I feel compelled to end on the same note. For, one of my strongest reactions to the conference was a sense of pride – towards those who came before me and created the opportunities that bring me livelihood and meaning. I paused to reflect on how I have been shaped by colleagues and friends like Vanessa Watson, Susan Parnell, Gordon Pirie and, of course, our indomitable director, Edgar. For, truly, without their role and leadership, ACC would not be the same, and I would not be asking these questions, nor seeking their answers.