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Cities and the Political Imagination
Right now the public consciousness is completely dominated by what a clown president is doing. It is compelling in its nihilism. But what we need now is political imagination.

By Rivke Jaffe

Editor's Note: Over the years there is one word that has become more and more important to me: imagination. In a world of absolute law there is no other future than the one prescribed by that law, so there is no change. But for there to be a future there must be imagination, somebody who dares to imagine a different world, a different place, a different possibility. That means, too, that the world itself must have been created in such a way as to be "open" to that which is new and different.

And it means that to be real it must be a new social world that is imagined, not just a place for an individual isolated from others, but a world in which each is in solidarity with the others. The word "political" refers to the power that creates and orders the world. And the word "city" is a particular place where people experience one another and how they exercise power in relation to their mutual imagination of that particular place. It has become extremely urgent to imagine new ways for human beings to live together in new ways with new sources of energy and new priorities for social and cultural experience.

So I was drawn to the title of the lecture available below, "cities and the political imagination." Notice that the word "political" is not defined here narrowly to refer to only particular representational structures. In fact, current political parties are not places where imagination is valued; they are just fighting with one another each minimizing the crises that face us in terms of forms of both environmental and economic structures.

This was a presentation by Rivke Jaffe at the annual lecture of the journal "Sociological Review," in June, 2017. It is her words which introduce the lecture:


How can we recognize the political in the city? How might social scientists engage with forms of politics outside of established sites of research such as those associated with representative democracy or collective mobilizations?

This presentation suggests that new perspectives on urban politics might be enabled by revisiting the connections between sociology and cultural studies, and specifically by combining long-term urban ethnography and cultural analysis. Reading forms of creative expression in relation to power struggles in and over urban space can direct our attention towards negotiations of authority and political belonging that are often overlooked within the social sciences. I explore the possibilities of such an approach by focusing on the idea of the political imagination, and in particular on how everyday practices are informed by imaginations of urban rule and citizenship.

Expressive culture generates both analytical and normative frames, guiding everyday understandings of how power works, where and in whose hands it is concentrated, and whether we see this as just or unjust. Such frames can legitimize or delegitimize specific distributions of resources and risks, and can normalize or denaturalize specific structures of decision-making.

Through a discussion of popular music (hiphop, reggae and dancehall) and visual culture, I consider how these forms of the imagination allow new political subjectivities and actions to emerge and consolidate.



Rivke Jaffe is Professor of Cities, Politics and Culture in the Department of Human Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses primarily on intersections of the urban and the political, and includes an interest in topics such as organized crime, popular culture and environmental pollution, drawing on fieldwork in Jamaica, Curaçao and Suriname. She is currently leading a major research program on public-private security assemblages in Kingston, Jerusalem, Miami, Nairobi and Recife, studying transformations in governance and citizenship in relation to hybrid forms of security provision. Her publications include Concrete Jungles: Urban Pollution and the Politics of Difference in the Caribbean (Oxford, 2016) and Introducing Urban Anthropology (with Anouk de Koning, Routledge, 2016). This appeared at the website of the Sociological Review.

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Date Added: 7/10/2017 Date Revised: 7/10/2017 11:37:21 PM

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