By Ana Catarino
In Paris: Invisible City Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant invite us to look at the city of Paris from a rather unusual perspective, what is usually not showed in social theory studies, to look at a city and try to unveil all the layers that constitute its life, to try to understand the several levels of complexity and their existing and possible intersections.
A city is more than the urban or social environment. That is to summarize what this study tries to show, discussing a metropolis like Paris. Complementary to that, this study also exemplifies the main concepts of Bruno Latour’s theory of actor-networking analysis of the social (explained in his book Re-assembling the social, introduction to actor-network-theory), meaning: picking an object and starting to unveil all the layers like peeling a onion, one after the other, and see where the layers intersect, where they combine, but also where they diverge. Only when we take account of the totality of layers unveiled all together in one flattened perspective instead of a hierarchical one, can we achieve a full understanding of the object we intend to study. Flattening the perspective also means assuming the point of view of the insider according to Latour, and not anymore the scientist who detaches himself from the object. On the contrary, he must be fully embedded in it to fully understand it, to fully acknowledge what the object is made of and how it functions.
The city seems to be the a perfect field to experiment with this methodology by its inherent complexity. Of course this also means that we are facing a job never to be completed but this also seems to be the case every time we debate the city, what it was, is and especially what it will be in the future, where all, or almost all the possibilities are still open. This was the time frame chosen from the conference entitled, “Tomorrow, international urban planning congress” that took place in Amsterdam last 1st and 2nd of October.
Bruno Latour approach seems useful, and the example of his study of Paris even more so, because the whole structure of the conference seemed to go into the same direction, that is, identifying the layers that constitute the problems of the city (planning from a political view, food policies, energy, definitions of urbanity), etc and by discussing them to see where they interact, where and how they establish links of interdependency. The conference wasn’t premised on Latour’s theory. It is not an exercise of it, nor do I intend to discuss the several problems this theory can bring to the analysis of a city, or any other object. The analogy here serves merely to point out the absolute need to try to understand the phenomenon of “urbanity” in the most complete way possible. This seemed to be the main concerns of those who organized this conference.
Now, I can only speak for what happen in the first day, the day I attended it, but the structure of it was common for both. In the morning several lectures and in the afternoon the program was divides between workshops (that were in fact mini-conferences where debate was promotes) or excursions, at the end we all gather again in the main building for a final lecture. If in the morning we all shared the same program, in the afternoon we had to chose what to attend, thus our experience of the conference were all different, just like it’s how our experiences of a city are different, depending on how we look at it.
The lectures, some more interesting than others, all seemed to have in common the assumption that the city is more and more where the future will happen, since we all know that already today, the majority of the world’s population live in it or close to it. The city more and more acquires an autonomous status, a political autonomy that obliges us to look at it through the concept of the “city-state” as it was the case in the ancient world. Eric Corijn (from Brussels open University and Cosmopolis research centre) discussed this perspective elaborately by tracing a history for the city back to the nineteenth century, with the industrial revolution re-shaping the city, introducing new problems, like anonymity which re-structured what was understand as “community”. Today it seems we are also in need of re-structuring some concepts associated with the city.
Increasing city autonomy also means the city’s subsistence must be re-thought, as Tim Lang (from London’s City University) remarked when discussing the issues of food policies, the city has always been a parasite in the sense that it is not able to produce all food it needs within its own territory, and it never will, but a more sustainable city is one that is able to produce more within its borders, to sponsor local production instead of importing most of its needs from far away. This goes for energy and water as well as for food.
One final word about the afternoon and specifically about the workshop I attended. We could chose from 6 different topics, from energy, sustainability, communication, and I’ve chosen the one called “Informality”, a concept discussed through 3 different examples: Latin-America with projects from the Supersudaca, Medellin with Alexandro Echeverri and Mumbai with P.K.Das. In the three examples “informality” were directly linked to the built environment and the need to improve it or to change it, but through considering the potential of “informality,” working with it and through it. The discussion had a very peculiar turn, the public struggled with the notion of absolute informality, the absence of rules, in other words how to merge planned elements with the spontaneous nature of these areas, and how to introduce elements that can connect to the anarchy but at the same time not disrupt it. The city also has an informal side to it, that what wasn’t planned. Concluding we can say we should deal more with time and not only space, or time ‘in’ space, how space is being penetrated by time and how space can allow time to be part of it. Time is of the essence when we consider future space.