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What is Urban Violence?

by Simone Tulumello on December 13, 2018

The question may appear redundant and misguided. Urban violence is, seemingly, everywhere, in dusty border towns and concrete inner cities, sprawling informal settlements and secluded gated communities, dark alleyways and busy demonstrations, fast-gentrifying neighbourhoods and dilapidated sites, futuristic business districts, leafy residential streets, and stigmatised banlieues. Given the extent and variety of ways in which urban violence is discussed, exploited, narrated, sensationalised, produced, and endured in the contemporary urban world, seeking to encapsulate it into a coherent definition may appear, as Sophie Body-Gendrot put it, ‘a utopian if not impossible task’ – and, perhaps, a superfluous one at that. Should we not be concerned with actually accounting for the reality of urban violence? In this blog post co-authored with Andrea Pavoni (Dinâmia’CET-IUL), we respond in the affirmative. Yet, we also believe that a definitional effort is not incompatible with this task – in fact, it is a required premise, one that we set out to pursue by suggesting some steps toward a theorisation of urban violence in an article that we recently published in Progress in Human Geography.

Judging from the work of those who have systematically searched for a common core in the discussion about urban violence, there is no such thing as an agreed definition, let alone a robust theorisation, of urban violence. Is this important? No, if we assume concepts as passive reflections of reality. Yes, if we take them as a strategic responses to actually existing problems. That is, if we assume a definition as not simply the static drawing of terminological boundaries, but their dynamic mobilisation for the task of tracing the problematic fields in which we live. What is the trouble with the existent definitions of the notion of urban violence, then? In a nutshell, they take the notions of urban, and violence, for granted. The absence of a robust conceptual discussion of ‘what is urban violence’ has troubling political implications, as the discourse – academic, but also public and political – is dominated by the simplistic equation of urban violence with ‘crime and violence that happen in the city’, and projected against an imaginary of a ‘city without violence’. It is in the name of the latter that the contemporary machine of security is deployed, a machine which, much critical research has shown, ends up justifying, legitimising, and reproducing more violence than that it purports to prevent.

As philosophy, anthropology, and psychoanalysis among others have shown, violence is not simply a traumatic and observable event. Violence is nested in socio-political, legal and economical structures as well as physical infrastructures, invisibilised and normalised by ideologies and representations, endured and embodied into affective atmospheres of fear and oppression. Violence exists and persists through time and space even when apparently absent, unseen, or situated in the past, be it the colonial violence still oppressing the black body, the patriarchal violence still haunting female and non-normative bodies, the violence of stigma still polluting given spaces or communities. While many authors efficaciously explored this material complexity – think about the work of Frantz Fanon, Silvia Federici, Loïc Wacquant and many, many others – our overview showed that, barring few notable exceptions (like the work of Dennis Rodgers), virtually all academic works available that directly engage with the notion of urban violence tend to treat it as a self-evident notion, employing the ‘urban’ as a mere adjective, that is, an indication of the place in which violence supposedly occurred. Urban violence, in other words, is for the most part meant to simply indicate a range of phenomena that take place in ‘urban spaces’. We arrived at this conclusion via an analytical perspective, complementing existing reviews of academic works about urban violence, by mixing qualitative research with scientometric methods, to chart the existing discourse.

Sankey diagram of main authors, keywords and journals in articles about urban violence found in Scopus (our elaboration; tool: ScienceScape; reprinted from Pavoni and Tulumello, 2018).

The urban, however, is much more than a merely physical environment (the city). As sociology, geography and political economy among others have shown, the urban is also an social and existential condition (the urban ‘way of life’), a historical and structural process (capitalist urbanisation), an ontological and affective being-together. Overcoming the limits of a simplistic and redundant definition of urban violence necessarily begins, therefore, by rescuing the urban from its reductionism, and restoring it to its ontological value. The notion of planetary urbanisation proved to be helpful in this sense. First hinted at by Henri Lefebvre, and recently popularised by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid in a series of hotly debated works, this thesis calls for understanding the urban as a geographically and historically contingent process that has overcome the city (and thus the static urban-rural separation) by taking on a planetary scale. Reframed via this conceptual manoeuvre, urban violence no longer appears a natural propriety of certain places (those that we call the city), but rather a historically and geographically specific process, a category emerging out of the dislocations and relocations of the process of capitalist urbanisation.

The urban can be rethought as simultaneously the background out of which violence becomes manifest and is experienced as an event, as well as the process constitutive to violence itself. Urban violence thus becomes a strategic concept emerging at the intersection between the structural, the representational, and the affective. This complex configuration, of course, is profoundly shaped, and indeed constituted, by the way in which urban violence is addressed and ‘governed’ in the context of contemporary urban politics. In the final part of the article, we then argue that the complex interplay through which urban violence comes to be produced, framed and endured may be promisingly understood through the framework of security logics. A specific violence-security nexus emerges in the context of capitalist urbanisation (cf. Michel Foucault), as a set of discourses, practices and politics of security which, insofar as framing urban violence as an exogenous anomaly to be eradicated, generate the pervasive atmospheres of fear that increasingly characterise contemporary urban space, asymmetrically affecting the bodies, spaces and practices that constitute the urban. Exploring these atmospheres of fear, we argue, equates to investigate the affective dimension of urban violence, adding a constitutive complement to the study of its structural and ideological dimensions.

In conclusion, we propose three conceptual shifts, as many steps toward a critical theory of urban violence. First: shifting from ‘violence in the city’ to violence in/of/through an age of (increasingly planetary) capitalist urbanisation. Second: moving beyond dichotomous thinking about the violence-security nexus. Looking for universal understandings of – and ‘solutions’ to – urban violence is dangerous, and what is required is instead to understand the contingent relation to varying urban conditions and different interpretations of urban life, integrating political economic understandings of the structural dimension of urban violence with affective explorations of its everyday experience. Third: shifting from a focus on ‘violence in the city’ to a focus on the ‘threshold’ (of visibility) beyond which a city is understood, depicted, and indeed felt, as violent. Urban violence thus appears as both the affective atmosphere of violence (i.e., what makes it ‘visible’ and ‘felt’ as the result of a specific lens through which violence is framed, i.e., security), as well as a specific process (namely, capitalist urbanisation) responsible for producing the conditions in which given forms of violence proliferate.

Our central argument, then, is that urban violence requires to be disarticulated from the sense of security to which it is overlapped. This does not mean minimising violence or giving up to its inevitability, but rather rejecting problematic assumptions (e.g. violence as an exogenous anomaly; violence as fully measurable and rational, and thus manageable by acting on costs-benefit calculations) and teleological projections. It is the very striving for a violence-free society, in other words, that appears to be constitutive to more violence (although often in the structural and symbolic, rather than direct, form), in the same way as it is the striving for absolute security that appears to be conducive to more insecurity, and fear. If urban violence is inextricably intertwined with the bundle of power, practices and representations of the actually-existing (neoliberal) ideology of security, then embracing uncertainty, and – as troubling as this endeavour may be – accepting violence as an inevitable (if problematic) component of urban life, ultimately appears as a necessary step.

The set image for this post is © Untitled (2017) by Pedro Victor Brandão (courtesy of the authors).

Simone Tulumello
Simone Tulumello is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lisbon, Institute of Social Sciences. His research interests lie at the border between planning research and critical urban studies: urban security and safety; urban fear and planning; planning theory; urban futures; housing and neoliberal urban policy; the geography of crisis and austerity; cities of Southern Europe and Southern USA. Simone is author of Fear, Space and Urban Planning (Springer, 2017) and articles in journals including Urban Affairs Review, Journal of Planning Education and Research, Urban Geography, International Planning Studies, Space and Culture, Cadernos Metrópole, and Archivio di Studi Urbani e Regionali.

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