Book review: Urban Violence: Security, Imaginary, Atmosphere

Book review: Urban Violence: Security, Imaginary, Atmosphere


Reviewed by Julian Molina

First Published:

25 Jan 2024, 8:45 am


Book review: Urban Violence: Security, Imaginary, Atmosphere

, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023; 432 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-7936-3730-7, £96.00 (hbk); 978-1-7936-3731-4, £38.00 (eBook)


Much theoretical and empirical work on urban violence tends to treat the city as an empty container, little more than a hollow, pre-given unit of analysis, for itemising violence’s origins, propensities and properties. After reading Urban Violence, neither the concept of ‘the urban’ nor ‘violence’ can be thought of without the other. For Pavoni and Tulumello, the force of violence and the urban, in its combinatorial logic, is found in the relational entwining of bodies, materials, practices, histories and imaginaries. This work of theory redefines an ordinary concept. If urban violence is the object of concern, the authors’ conceptual treatment of this object is a path for returning to the question of urban futures.

Rather than rethinking urban violence from within the disciplinary conventions of urbanism, criminology or zemiology, the book approaches the urban through life itself. Reassuringly ambitious in scope, the book offers an assured application of contemporary critical theory, namely affect theory and post-humanism. This book is not concerned with violence’s sociobiological or cultural aetiology nor identifying statistical patterns. Instead, in Pavoni and Tulumello’s treatment, critical thought of urban violence requires a historical and critical sensibility for understanding the aesthetic and affective politics of the city, the ramifications of securitising logic, along with violence’s fetishisation, condemnation and commodification. The book suggests potential lines of inquiry to reanimate research on crime and harm within and without the city.

Pavoni and Tulumello’s book begins with an epistemological break: violence does not occur inside a city. Violence and the urban are co-constituted through their ontic relationality. Instead of treating the city as an empty container, the book examines what else might be found in this unthought conjuncture of urban theory. In one reading, the book is an exercise in theorising the confluence of forces, drawing upon critical political economy cum vitalist materialism. As such, the book is attuned to entanglements of the urban, life itself, and biosocial formations, such as recent theorisations of the ‘urban brain’ (Fitzgerald and Rose, 2022). On its face, the book’s principal objective is the exhaustive denaturalisation of this concept and reimagining an ontological and epistemological basis for researching urban violence. Beneath the surface, the book does this through a genealogical and materialist reading of contemporary spatial cum technological fixes in the form of security apparatuses designed to produce order, comfort and, with it, perpetuate new forms of infra-structural violence.

To achieve this denaturalisation, the authors equip themselves with a sensitive attunement to matters (and associated scholarship) of affect, infrastructure, history and process. Pavoni and Tulumello take stock of the critical possibilities in recent ‘turns’ in contemporary (urban) thought. Namely, those currents of work organised around infrastructures, affects, post-humanism and vitalism. The book takes three concepts from these turns as organising principles for the book: atmospheresimaginaries and extensions. In this sense, the book, at least in part, acts as a treatise for a new (materialist) epistemology of urban violence and, in turn, urban theory of infrastructures, harm, care and security.

The book is organised into multiple tripartite structures. Each of the book’s three parts develops a cross-cutting notion, built upon three concepts that act as a reference point for developing novel arguments about urban violence. Each chapter includes a coda which reflects on the task of ‘Researching Urban Violence’, discussing how theoretical and empirical research might reconceptualise the relationship between violence and the city. These codas offer a series of epistemological warnings, along with suggestions about overcoming reductionist and quantifying research strategies, which will interest interdisciplinary scholars and graduate students.

Part I, Foundations, includes three chapters: ‘violence’, ‘urban’ and ‘security’. This Part establishes the core concepts for subsequent chapters by revisiting scholarship on violence and the city. This Part’s first chapter, ‘Violence’, argues the need to move beyond reductionist accounts of violence, particularly those relying upon legalist definitions, by interrogating an infra-structural perspective that focuses on how social relations ‘hold together’ reality. The chapter on ‘Urban’ asks questions of the historical–ontological properties of urbanisación, as thought by the 19th-century Catalan engineer, designer and planner of the Barcelona extension, Ildefonso Cerdá, to think through the scientific–rationalist production of the urban. The third chapter in Part I turns to security, which, in their treatment, is rethought as desire, sense, feeling and through tracing processes of becoming-secure.

Part II turns to Intersections and focuses on the concepts of the imaginaryurbanisation and atmosphere. The chapter, ‘Imaginary’, notes how the modern (Cf. ‘Western’) imaginary originates from crisis and radical uncertainty. The civilising potential of the city and the phantasy of security have emerged as contingent treatments for this crisis condition. The chapter on ‘Urbanisation’ offers a processual and relational understanding of its concept to understand the (primarily, European) city as a contingent historical project. The chapter involves a reading of political economic thought on neoliberalism and planetary urbanisation to move beyond city-centred accounts of violence and argues for integrating political economic approaches with a materialism of precepts, affects and relations. The last chapter in this Part, ‘Atmospheres’, begins this task by outlining the potential for an infra-structural analysis of affective forces. It develops the notion of ‘urban atmospheric violence’ through attending to scholarship on violence as plasma, ‘slow violence’, ordinary everyday (violence), deaths at the hands of police and within custody, and the relation between violence and breathing.

Lastly, Part III takes on Extensions and offers chapters on comfortsmartness and cum cura. The chapter, ‘Comfort’, explores the current ‘urban atmosphere’ and security aesthetics, unfolding recent trends in urban politics in Italy. Linking discussions of biopolitics with the feeling of danger, the authors examine the preoccupation with urban order that produces an ‘aestheticisation of contemporary urban security’ (p. 268). The subsequent chapter, ‘Smartness’, reflects on the relationship between Smart Cities, cybernetics, prediction/prevention and data infrastructures to instantiate Deluzian ‘societies of control’ amidst proliferating forms of algorithmic violence. In the concluding chapter, ‘Cum cura’ (meaning ‘with care’), the authors draw out several implications for the European Left, proposing how urban violence can be thought of as an object for a new politics. In their words, this politics would reconfigure the commons so as ‘to increase and make flourish urban capabilities while avoiding their incapacitation’ (p. 325). The politics of urban violence counterposes security with care, a care needed to respond to an infra-structural urban violence that affects the vitality of the urban.

By returning to the notion of care, a critical placeholder that has animated recent political thought, the authors suggest the potential for future inquiries into the resilience and destabilisation of neoliberalism’s securitising logic. The book will interest critical scholars preoccupied with questions of violence, crime, harm, security, care and the history of urban thought. Each chapter’s inclusion of a section on ‘Researching Urban Violence’ will spur critical reflection about contemporary security and urban governance strategies. As such, the book’s main strength can be found in problem-posing and opening up new possibilities for urban and criminological thought.

The book contributes to a substantial corpus of recent studies on urban, infrastructural and police violence. Elsewhere, authors such as Murray (2020) have examined how the urban poor come to be treated as suspects within hyper-segregated and securitised urban spaces by security assemblages that modulate a public feeling of panic. Laurence Ralph (2019) demonstrates what care work could involve by listening to accounts of police torture perpetrated by the Chicago Police Department, tracing historical networks of violence at the hands of the police and security services. Along with Urban Violence, this emerging corpus of studies invites us to ask: what aesthetic, historical, activist, professional and technical strategies, tactics and practices can be brought to bear to instantiate new urban apparatuses of care? How might an infrastructural and logistical sensibility enable the invention and promulgation of a right to (be in a caring relation to) the city? Pavoni and Tulumello’s book makes space to answer these and other questions.



Fitzgerald D, Rose N (2022) The Urban Brain: Mental Health in the Vital City. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Google Scholar

Murray MJ (2020) Panic City: Crime and the Fear Industries in Johannesburg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Crossref | Google Scholar

Ralph L (2019) The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar



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