Empire and Post-Empire in the Global City, King’s College London: A Reflective Summary

King’s College London, 30th/31st January 2014

Workshop Summary

Under the heading “Empire and Post-Empire in the Global City”, the first Planned Violence workshop, hosted at King’s College London on 30th and 31st January 2014, addressed questions of global urban infrastructure and the carry-over of colonial power dispensations into postcolonial times. The workshop focused specifically on London, though papers also introduced some comparative links with the two partner cities, Delhi and Johannesburg, as well as other urban examples such as Belfast and Cairo. The Working Group received positive and fruitful feedback from the workshop delegates.

Delegates came from abroad, including attendees from Germany, Italy, India, South Africa and Australia, and from various institutions across the UK including Oxford, Bristol, Northampton, Coventry, York and Edinburgh. The academic papers worked well alongside, and in dialogue with, the cultural presentations, writers’ readings and dramatic performances, all of which addressed the workshop’s highlighted themes and core questions in productive ways. These different discussions and presentations were brought together and honed by three questions in particular, distributed to contributors before the workshop in order to structure the discussion. The questions were: 1. How do continuities—and discontinuities—in urban planning manifest in London’s spaces from colonial into postcolonial times? And between the Global South and the Global North? 2. Does it make sense to speak of London as an uneven ‘southern’ city? How is London overlaid and underpinned by the South? 3. In what ways do literature and performance respond to, intervene in, and interrogate urban planning? Can literature be seen to provide outlets, insights, and points of departure in situations of planned violence?

The theme of continuity between the three titular cities—spatially between their socioeconomic and infrastructural conditions, and also temporally through the lens of the cities’ post/colonial conditions—recurred in constructive and cumulative ways across the different sessions as ideas were developed and built on by speakers, and certain topics and discussion points, especially in respect of virtual infrastructures, performance and resilience re-surfaced in the question and answer sessions. Some feedback from delegates helpfully suggested that whilst the content of the workshop was properly grounded in history (a focus clearly indicated by both the Network’s and the Workshop’s title), it might also be useful to look more to future imaginings of the city and the role that literature and other cultural productions might play in enabling and driving this forward. Furthermore, whilst concepts such as “infrastructure” and “resistance” were interrogated and at times hotly contested (see below), it has been drawn to our attention that the notion of “violence”, a key word in the project’s remit, might have been more productively explored or at least given more attention. This is an issue that will certainly be followed through in subsequent workshops.

However, though there clearly were areas left unexplored, the different keynotes, panels and discussions across the two days managed to address a remarkably broad range of issues through a variety of different formats. Iain Sinclair’s opening keynote offered a nostalgic reflection on the changing uses of city space as the infiltration of capital into the daily life of its citizens is combined with the increasing restriction of movement, especially on foot. The use of the word “kettling” by the workshop convenor, Elleke Boehmer, in her introduction, to describe the increase in socio-spatial engineering, was taken up by Sinclair in his talk and reverberated throughout the rest of the workshop. Sinclair made reference to the politics of water, as both the central feature of London but also as a valuable resource that underpins urban environments, and this was taken up by Sarah Nuttall in her comparative paper on Johannesburg in a panel discussion that sought to understand post-imperial London as a city of the Global South. The writers’ reading on the second day, which included readings and reflections from Brian Chikwava and Selma Dabbagh, combined two novels that view London through the eyes of protagonists from the Global South—Zimbabwe and Palestine respectively—and offered some illuminating insights into the way literature might map or produce London’s urban environment as a violent and distinctly postcolonial space, or set of spaces. GJV Prasad’s paper, as part of a panel that also revolved around the concept of “Writing London”, contributed further to these ideas by discussing how literature had given him, as a South Asian, a conceptual map of London before he had ever travelled there, thus furthering the relationship between literary geographies and different imaginings of urban space.

Papers from Rosie Lavan, Nick Simcik-Arese and Kevin Brazil brought other urban spaces, including Cairo, Derry, Belfast and Berlin as comparative sites into the discussion, offering rich cultural and historical contributions and further complicating the workshop’s main conceptual axis. These included, in particular, insights into the way in which urban structures facilitate sight-lines for policing and reflections on the uses of violence (insurrectionary or counter-insurrectionary) and (free or restricted) crowd movement. Nick Simcik-Arese’s paper on Julie Mehretu’s artwork also played into another important theme, that of the interdisciplinary approaches to and a broader understanding of “cultural production” that underpinned many of the workshop’s interrogations and that was retrospectively commended in feedback from delegates. Whilst literature is clearly the main cultural site that the project takes as its focus, the workshop also concerned itself with artistic work—including Mehretu’s—and this concern was further followed through in an excellent tour of street art and graffiti in East London, delivered by Alternative London, which was thoroughly appreciated by workshop attendees. The theme of cultural production also prominently embraced drama and performance, with an excellent performance of a two-man play entitled Brothers from Greenwich and Lewisham’s Young People’s Theatre, as well as an engaging poetry reading from Sid Bose.

This last cultural medium produced the line of interrogation that probably sparked the keenest interest, and was certainly the most hotly contested debate of the workshop. The panel discussion entitled “Performing Urban Violence” sought to explore and reflect on the capacity of dramatic performance to initiate trajectories of resistance to different infrastructural and spatial modes of oppression and social control. In so doing, the concept of “resistance” and what it is “to resist” was explored, complicated and disaggregated. Paul Gilroy, the chair of the workshop’s final session, offered some thoughtful and enriching elaborations on the concept, specifically expressing concerns around the way in which certain forms of resistance that might initiate short term change, in fact perpetuate longer term power hierarchies and social and systemic inequalities, mainly by collaboration with governmental and biopolitical capillaries of power. However, the debate that followed also made clear that certain avenues of resistance that seek to implement immediate and constructive social change will inevitably have to work alongside existing institutional and infrastructural frameworks that may, paradoxically, both function as the cause of a broader structural violence whilst also having the capacity to alleviate those same violent processes, as well as preventing other forms of violence (such as lack of access to resources, for example). The debate resulted in a closer scrutiny of the Network’s broader title: the implicit dichotomy between “infrastructure” and “resistance” or “violence” should perhaps be understood as a dialectical relationship, rather than as a simple binary between oppressor and oppressed. An argument raised several times throughout the workshop pointed out that whilst infrastructures are often complicit with forms of social control and repression, they also facilitate and enable all social activity and are necessary underpinnings and foundations for the sorts of cultural productions that the Network is concerned to analyse. Indeed, the withdrawal of infrastructures from certain socio-geographic areas within urban environments can be, and has been, used to control social behaviour and spatial movement just as much as their implementation can be. All these fruitful contributions have helped us to explore and unravel some of the project’s key terminologies, which will be held over for further discussion at the Network’s future workshops.

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