Review forum podcast: The Surrounds

Review forum podcast: The Surrounds

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Reviewed by Pranita Shrestha, Alison Young, Adam Morton, Tanzil Shafique, AbdouMaliq Simone, Dallas Rogers

First Published:

13 Apr 2023, 12:02 pm

Review forum podcast: The Surrounds

AbdouMaliq Simone, The Surrounds: Urban Life within and beyond Capture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022; 176 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4780-1813-1, £21.99/US$24.95 (paperback); ISBN: 978-1-4780-1550-5, £85.00/US$94.95 (hardback)

 

Listen to the Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/user-283789701/the-surrounds

 

Dallas Rogers (DR): Hello everyone, Dallas Rogers here.  Welcome to City Road Podcast and this special Urban Studies book review episode. Today we’re talking with Professor Adam Morton from the discipline of political economy at the University of Sydney, Professor Alison Young from social and political sciences and the Deputy-Director of the Centre for Cities at the University of Melbourne, Dr Tanzil Shafique, lecturer of urban design at University of Sheffield, and we’re talking today with Professor AbdouMaliq Simone about his new book, The Surrounds, published by Duke. I’ll now hand over to Dr Pranita Shrestha from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, who is hosting this episode.

Pranita Shrestha (PS): Thank you. Hi, everyone. Welcome to this podcast on The Surrounds. I would like to thank everyone for being part of this and let’s begin with the first question on The Surrounds by Professor Morton.

Adam Morton (AM): Thanks very much, Pranita. AbdouMaliq Simone, it’s always very exciting when a book is chosen by the reading group that Dallas Rogers convenes, Place, Race and Critical Theory, and so it was with your book, The Surrounds: Urban Life Within and Beyond Capture as well. In the book you describe the surrounds as, and I quote, “a liminal interstice in between multiple diverging trajectories of urbanisation that are always in the process of being suited more or less” (Simone, 2022, p. 32), end quote. But how new is the surrounds is my question to start with as a process of urbanisation and what are its spatial and temporal limits of periodisation?

To unpack that a little bit, in your uses of the surrounds in the book you draw the reader’s attention to the underground railroad as a metaphor for how one instantiation of a built environment leads into another as conduits that otherwise remain invisible. You focus on the integrity of entities and here you make reference to Gormorrah and surplus infrastructures that “become an essential “character” of the show and point to the ways in which the metropolitan is made through a process of suturing and manoeuvring across distinct types of spaces, of folding in different temporalities and rhythms of production into a totalising machinic operation” (Simone, 2022, p. 50).

But one could easily draw attention here I think to earlier forms, so, for example, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Notes from Underground and its focus on the refusal to become a worker in the ‘anthill’ of society and the narrative’s attention to the gradual withdrawal to an existence ‘underground’. Or as a further example there is Vasily Grossman’s epic depiction in Life and Fate of another emerging underground, and to quote that novel a little bit Grossman states:

“A new city – wartime Stalingrad – had been born out of the flames. This city has its own layout of streets and squares, its own underground buildings, its own traffic laws, its own commerce, factories and artisans, its own cemeteries, concerts and drinking parties” (Grossman, 2011).

One could also think here perhaps of contemporary Ukraine forms of urbanisation and its current creative destruction.

So how does your focus on the surrounds and its banal landscapes and surplus infrastructures relate to earlier but also maybe contemporary forms of urbanisation, has the surrounds always been with us everywhere across all times and spaces and does looking at the surrounds through a presentist lens only ever furnish a partial perspective on its constitution? So over to you to unpack some of those temporalities please.

AbdouMaliq Simone (AMS): No, you’re right. There are presentist perspectives certainly, is only partial in terms of the kinds of situations that you’re pointing to. I haven’t been that much interested in periodisation, although there are clearly – there are stories to be told about what comes before, about pasts that are not yet finished and about the politics entailed by determinations that something is finished somehow temporarily bounded and if time itself entails unanticipated apertures and eruptions then the surrounds is certainly embedded in time and is a matter of timing.

My approach to the surrounds is that of something that is simultaneously atmospheric, morphological, metabolic, architectural, topographical, socially lived space which surrounds you, the actor, and others more or less bounded and more or less defined. That space in which you are imbricated, locatable, positioned, moving to or away from various frames, perspectives and layers. So, each arrangement, each spatial arrangement, each institutional arrangement, each enforced series of relationalities is what I’m trying to say is partial, that is only part of the story that narrates a particular judgement or value.

So, the surrounds is also the immediate presence of the maybe, what indeed may be as a plethora of registers, apertures, potentialities and an ontology of indeterminacy, that things only exist provisionally and then exist only at the expense of elision, subjugation and omission. So, in some sense what I’m trying to say is that the surrounds is the accompanying condition of any valuation, any definition that is constantly shapeshifting and polyrhythmic and because it is constantly shapeshifting and polyrhythmic then it is thus continuously historical in the way I think that you’re trying to point to.

PS: Thank you, Adam and Maliq. Now we move to the next question by Professor Young.

Alison Young (AY): Thanks, Pranita. It was an absolute delight for me to encounter this book with all its challenges. So, thank you for writing it. I wanted to raise some issues around the challenges offered by the book. I think it works through challenges to (at least some of) the senses as to analytical sense-making. It asks us, for one thing to hear its ideas as a music. This is explicitly stated by you at the start of Chapter One where you say the chapter treats the surrounds as a kind of refrain and that the chapter’s writing draws upon the commitment to eluding consensual capture found in improvisational music.

Then what follows is an exhilarating immersion in words and arguments that hint at melody and then fracture and recompose their textual chords where words coalesce in a list that conjoins their resemblances into a harmonious grouping. As an example, at one point you list ‘hostels, boarding rooms, sweat shops, junk yards, vacated warehouse, underpopulated industrial zones, vast swathes of affordable single-family housing and massive apartment blocks’ (Simone, 2022, p. 31). That trope of fracture and regrouping into the elements of a harmonious chord occurs at several points through the book generally but a lot in Chapter One.

I think in addition The Surrounds also asks us to look peripherally and without certainty. For example, scenes are richly and thickly described but they’re also situated within a broken or a circular account that means our reading is as if we’re gazing into the fog around the parts of a city that are more readily perceptible. As readers we’re continually trying to discern the shape and the meaning of the blurred outlines and figures within the mist of the writing.

So, in addition the book’s included images often have little indexical connection to the text, offering us instead glimpses of banal species in urban settings, which I really appreciated, and they had a cumulative effect on me. So, I often found myself noticing banal spaces in my everyday movement through the city here in Melbourne.

So, one of my questions is: given the ethnographic underpinnings of this book was it your intention to show how sense might be made through slant-wise engagement with the senses as much as through interpretive analytics? And given the near imperceptibility of the surrounds does this create a primary role or a privileged position for the ethnographer in bringing the surrounds towards the realms of sense? Furthermore, there are discordant moments as well in the argument and for me one that occurred on page 48 where you mention trafficked women as examples, figures in a list of types of individuals.

The others mentioned are ‘hardened thugs’ and also ‘voluble mayors’ and there are similar moments in Chapter Three which features descriptions of women seducing men, albeit it in a context that explains this as a survival tactic. A further question is about this dissonance where sometimes it seemed that the bodies, lives, voices and experiences of women were not fully figured within the cadencies of the text. It seems to me that women are still somewhat in the surrounds of the text itself. So, my question is, in your view, what hope is there for women in the textural and urban surrounds in your view?

This leads me to a further related point, which is how can The Surrounds be read in connection with law? Questions of illegality, violence and harm permeate the text – but faintly. Many of the activities described in Chapters Two and Three involve crime, the trafficking of women, kidnap, bribery, blackmail, corruption, theft. They’re a part of ethnographic segments that give no particular normative weight to them as acts. So as someone with a legal background and a history of researching violence against the vulnerable this is challenging and also dissonant.

My final question is thus as follows: while it’s great to be reminded of the contingency of normative categories and to be continually alert to the vested interests that underpin many legal categories and much of law enforcement, I did also feel an affective jolt from what could seem to be an indifference towards, law, harm, violence, justice, reparation, punishment and so on. So, in the end the words trafficked women were words I couldn’t – in some ways I couldn’t get past them, much though I have wanted to. They continue to – they echo a little bit in my head and so my final question is how should these two words be read and how should I hear their dissonance within The Surrounds?

AMS: The first part of your question first. What I’m trying to think about is what does it mean to navigate and where navigation is driven through an active unknowing or social distancing from established familiarities and assumptions, where navigation is an act of deferring any definitive settling of a dominant mode evaluation or ways of attributing significance and authority. For example, taking it from Glissant’s famous passage but for these shores to take shape, what does it mean to navigate a river where the banks have vanished on both sides of the boat?

So, what would happen if within a particular urban landscape all of what you might consider to be the key markers of identification, that which lends an atmosphere of singularity to a landscape, what would happen if all were substantially minimised, your house, their car, that address? What would you subtract to create such a minimised visualisation as if you were photoshopping a veneer? Conversely, what would you add to supplement existing images so as to amplify the singularities beyond easily recognition?

So, this play of addition and subtraction is at work all of the time in order to register and convey an economy of connectivity and availability. This is a key ingredient in the politics of articulation. What has the potential to have something to do with something else both within and beyond relations of proximity? Such a play also suggests what could have taken place and what actually might be taking place beyond official recognition. What would happen if you were to walk down a street in your city and turn the corner and find yourself on a street of one of your colleagues’ cities and so on and so forth until you are all uncertain as to where you really are located?

But this is always a fundamental question, where are you? With what devices do you rely upon in order to generate communicable and confirming statements about your location when every time we attempt to frame the view, the scene, whatever is inside is always already moving out of the frame, to be framed, to be set up and then to refuse this and the way in which everyday life and its subjectivities are distributed across multiple sites and operations.

How to think the simultaneous occurrences that we might consider discreet, unrelated events in terms of energetic transmissions where actions overflow their apparent enclosures and whereby rearranging is a continuous, uninterrupted process where stabilities do not so much reflect internal durability but the constant recalibration of scenes, sights, context in terms of each other.

So, Fred Moten’s reiteration of the notion of conduction, something that was a practice, a musical practice by his good friend, my friend, Butch Morris–also my former neighbour, might also be useful here, both as a process of choreography and energetic transmission where relations operate as a device of the conduction of force. Conduction is a particular device of musical performance. It is not so much that the individual musicians perform their respective part in a coherent composition or matrix of improvisation. Rather, they enact a multiplicity of different intonations and phrasings simultaneously.

These remain detached and autonomous from each other, not contributing to a coherent orchestration, but the transmission of wave forms where the possibility of articulation is insipient within any of the players who are in turn recipient of a gathering of sounds. The conductor’s task then is to follow the trajectories of flows of these forces, then directing particular ensembles of performers to steer these forces in a particular direction.

Then the second part of your question about the time of women, which is a tricky question because the time of women is in some sense affirming of a particular kind of identity of women but undermining that very definitiveness at the very same time. In some ways what you pick up in some of the literature that I brought in, this amazing novel, Hurricane Season, is not so much a foregrounding of trafficked women but of a way in which that what is left within that kind of desperate conditions of suburban Mexico is a sense that women only can identify that kind of temporality through this kind of gazing of what remains just in some ways separate, separate from them because much of the book is about djinn (the time of women).

Djinn is that which occupies a middle between law and not law, between life and death, right and wrong and so forth and this middle passage as a place of exile in the middle between inclusionary exclusion, that is the way being evicted from the norm, buttresses the norm and exclusionary inclusion, the way being part of the game, getting the pie excludes one’s cherished ways of living. So, each term has its middle and the relationship between the terms has its own middle. In a story that not only is running away from a troublesome, uninhabitable past but also a future that is not yet inhabitable, a past and a future that is not just for the narrator, just in both senses of fairness or exclusivity.

So what does it mean then to act from the middle of such turbulence where the proficiencies to categorise and contain across more expansive registers from the nanoscales to planetary ones exhausts the very reservoirs of those non-probable, incomputable chanced and virtual relations that propel invention and ward off atrophy. The attainment of ordinariness not as something that forgets oppression or that domesticates colonial or gender violence but that etches out a domain of inhabitation that is simultaneously informed by the specificities of subjugation and the unyielding desire for liberation but yet at the same time is indifferent to them as well.

Something that has already moved on to concretely imagine an afterlife here and right now, something beyond all of the vernaculars of living from which forces are to be extracted, eviscerated or controlled. The question that Fred Moten raises is whether justice is inapplicable to apprehending the ways in which the eruption of normative trajectories, the tumultuous spilling out of life in wayward, inexplicable ways is both the product of subjugation and of what he calls life’s priority or what Foucault often talked about as life’s priority, and that it is sometimes impossible to navigate and separate this distinction.

That that middle space becomes the space of djinn, djinn becomes the kind of ontology of that middle, of that inability to discern at the moment whether something is the product of subjugation or is it life’s priority, that the very creation of the future rather than the future being specific probabilities or scenarios and pre-emptions, that that future depends on its eruptive force, which will always risk dispossession or the loss of a moral compass. If so, who will be dispossessed and how? In a way, trying to think about the issue of a time of women and the politics of gender in terms of who comes to bear that dispossession, but a dispossession that is fundamentally rooted in the creation of a future which always has to risk dispossession.

So instead of seeing in some ways the time of women as necessarily located within the current scenario or complexion of power relations, it’s a more ontological one in terms of who bears the brunt of that risk in terms of the dispossession that is always in some sense an aspect of the creation of the future.

So, the politics of inhabitation thus goes beyond the restitutive and reparative logics of justice, that somehow, it’s something more spacious as life’s expressiveness or, more precisely, the modalities through which life is activated to resist notions of fulfilment, sustainability and property as in life being a series of properties to be cultivated, prolonged so as to maximise its value. How to operate outside of that knowing that it’s not possible, that one is always placed within that middle and so the time of women is the time in some sense of that middle.

PS: Thank you, Alison and Maliq. Now we move to our last question by Dr Shafique.

Tanzil Shafique (TS): Hi. Thank you. It’s great to be talking about this book again for me. So, Maliq, let’s begin with the “world”, or rather “this world”, as you point out in page 25, and I want to tease out a particular tension, indeed what I see as a rebellious act being performed by the book in denying the more absolutist position of multiple worlds being out there, which facilitates the notion of the, quote, “abolitionist imperative to change everything” (Simone, 2022, p. 25). Rather than advocating from a teleological end point of pluriverses as a noun (as used by other scholars of pluriverse), you seem to advocate pluriversal as an orientation, as an instrument, as a tool that relates back to “this world” and “this world,” with its insufficiencies and brokenness.

This generates what I would call “generated perplexity (rather than a relationality)” in your work, a necessary one at that, which forces one to acknowledge a specificity that undergirds whichever “multiple world” we may propose, an obdurate object with an opaqueness that one could not get away from with any amount of planned action, however revolutionary. I will come back to this notion of specificity but as a first question how could we further tease apart the pluriversal orientation and the notion of “this world, only this world”, again as you write in a very particular way?

This to me is crucial since it paves the way for questioning the normalised notion of a unitary form of justice as an end goal in itself for a global cosmopolitical project that deals with the thisness, the brokenness and operates in the now in the arrangements of The Surrounds. So that’s the first part.

Secondly, following on from the notion of specificity you involved the notion of rebellion (multiple times in the book as a running thread), which you describe as the final version of The Surrounds (p. 127). You mention your experience of “rambunctious neighbourhoods” in Southern Cities, an experience that I can relate empirically, and it seems the notion of the rebellion is drawn from the sense of constant refusal, inversion, deter-ment, block, bricolage, as you say, an unyielding capacity to produce a rebellion in the specific, not in the abstract.

Now, I’m sort of reflexively looking at this and I’m interested in your conception of this condition, rebellion, of deterring constantly others’ attempt, and how it relates to how we may practice it in generating a surrounds within academic and research settings that we find ourselves in. In other words, how would we elaborate the notion of rebellion as a generative condition of the surrounds in academia rather than simply studying it from outside in? So yeah, that’s it from me. Thank you.

AMS: Thanks, Tanzil. Part of the insistence on this world is perhaps a little bit of an adolescent recalcitrance to all of the invocations that we can create many worlds that one gets tired of it at some point. But we do not know this world, not because of our lack of capacity or our conceit, but because a world is not an object to be known or rather, where the knowledge of it is not a matter to be settled. There are apertures and foreclosures. So the surrounds then becomes a means of pluralising a topographical imagination for ending spatial configurations that persist through a generalised flattening of surfaces, as in that occasion by the planetary exoskeleton of surveillance.

So instead to put into play what are largely black notions, such as hollows or furrows or shoals or eddys or mangals or heads and wilds, landscapes that destabilise notions of freedom captured by static determined dispositions as something aside any determination of whether something is really free. The borders between territories may constantly shift between administrative designations, zones of social intimacy and emotional attachments, circuits of everyday mobility and shifting forms of authority.

Yet the ways in which the intersections among conduits of movement, spaces of relative domesticity, the modulations of public and private interaction, the routines of everyday social reproduction and the vectors of sensation marked out by the materials and designs and built forums, all of these generate a specific orientation and capacity, they exert a specific imprint on the larger urban space. This is not the only orientation, nor the only impact, but it is something specific, immeasurable and untranslatable that these arrangements make possible, a kind of rebellion against the transitive.

It also constitutes what could be called a form of material resistance to the discursive orientated domains of policy and designs that seek to outlie relational frameworks which seek to attribute particular values, positions and measures of efficacy to a particular territory, a kind of rebellion about speech that counts and who counts and for whom. It doesn’t mean that relational frameworks are suspended by these specificities, only that another, albeit often tacit dimension of collective agency is materialised.

Such specificity of material resistance can be important in terms of engaging the potential trajectories of territories that otherwise might look similar, be subject to basically the same array of conditions yet diverge in terms of how they do or do not endure. I mean, every building may be recognisable according to some category, but it is always possibly something else. It may compress populations and activities and experiences in ways that simply cannot be easily compared.

So, Denise Ferreira da Silva talks about this as different – her word is differences without separability. In other words, differences that simply are differences, that cannot be apportioned in any particular schema of the more or less valuable, the more or less relatable, where there is no other constituting the grounds for a delimited view of worthiness or eligibility, something that takes place that rebels against translation, refuses being tied into critique or relationality.

This specificity is not about unknowability or even singularity but rather a gesture of consideration and tending to a space where things might have something to say simply as the arrangement of different things in their inseparability.

In other words, by their capacity at that moment to offer something unfamiliar to each other simply at that moment of gathering, so a kind of provision of affordances without knowing in advance or even subsequently what was brought to the table. So liminal here is the possibility of things being together without the hint of a system or a framework, that things could be with each other without being subsumed into an imaginary of a larger totality, which always proves itself a kind of prison.

So, if we might consider certain urban spaces as liminal it is not through some magic act of conversion, not some spiritual currency, but a malleable, mutating ensemble of technics and by technics I don’t mean just metabolic functions or smart cities or geovisualisation or broadband cables but a choreography of other kinds of switches and conveyances and motors, technics that include ensembles of lures, bluffs, dramas, dissimulation, soundscapes and bodily arrangements.

So, what transpires in this world is always a work in progress where something is made to work, that is it has to find a way in to make its presence felt but in a way that everything and everyone else doesn’t have to explicitly acknowledge it because it is working in the sense of both having function but also finding what it could be within any new arrangement. So, in terms of the question, the sense about academia, how to draw upon this vast repertoire of adjustments and inventiveness, to accorded value and strategic recognition, to make use of all of the untold uses that take place daily across different urban spaces.

So, the predominant tools of accounts, computation, spatial manoeuvres, digitally driven as they are, seem to enforce a kind of never-ending synchronism. Again, a determination and a use of critique based on proportion, assessment, monitoring. So, I think for me that notion of rebellion perhaps within academic settings, if I were to just riff off of the philosopher, François Laruelle, for a moment, what might we really learn from, for example, popular urban black epistemologies, such as those of the five percenters of my younger days or the Afrofuturists today within what Laruelle would call their collective cameras, so the notion of academia as a kind of camera.

But what is their camera; what is the camera of these kinds of black popular epistemologies, cameras that render images of black collective life that are known but indecipherable. All of the gestures, the touches, the tacit acknowledgments that link all of the disparate domains of blackness, all of the links for something that can’t really be sutured, a kind of camera that renders images or a story of what the flow of time could have been, might actually be if the ruptures that photographs embody weren’t held back and didn’t compel the constant repetition of the now.

So, these kinds of cameras and maybe the kind of cameras that we might think about are not ordered communications, but rather repositories of impressions, half-truths, fabulations, disjointed memories, incantations, revelations. This is in contrast to the mass image, an image of the masses, which really isn’t about the image at all but rather, the infinite series of networked relations that are algorithmically composed from extracting from disjointed agencies no longer cohered as subjects but repertoires of behaviours and inclinations.

The ways in which as we’re moving towards the hegemony of a particular kind of academic knowledge the subject doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s just a computing point or it’s a point in an infinite series of calculations. So, the black camera instead tells a story which includes relations that may be moving in different directions and at different rates all at the same time, always moving through each and any attempt to get a hold of it. So, the question you raise is an important one; what is the kind of camera that we use and could use in terms of thinking through a rendering of the possibilities of collective life.

PS: Thank you, Tanzil and Maliq. Thank you so much, everyone. I think it’s been a great session.

AMS: Thanks for taking this on. It’s a real privilege and an honour for you particularly to have put this kind of study group together and I really appreciate it. I appreciate all these difficult questions and queries. It really reflects the – because when you write something like this you don’t always anticipate what kinds of questions are going to be asked and these are really – I learned a lot from all of you, so really thank you for your efforts. I really appreciate it.

DR: Thank you. Can I just say that I read the book and I really loved it. I particularly loved the almost ethnographic pieces and the jazz kind of as method part. It really provided a toolkit for me to engage with the book. So, I really loved that. We had quite a lot of discussion about thinking about impro and jazz and music as a reading tactic. So yeah, thanks for bringing that to the reading group.

 

References

Grossman V (2011) Life and fate (Vintage classic Russians series). New York City, NY: Random House.

Simone A (2022) The Surrounds: Urban Life within and beyond Capture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.