Producing comparability in the urban now: from Walter Benjamin to the research field

Authors: Murray Mckenzie*, University College London
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: comparative urbanism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Proteus, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Jennifer Robinson reads in Walter Benjamin the beginnings of a transformative comparative imagination, one which grants all cities the privilege of sharing a contemporaneous ‘now’ bearing fragments of possible urban futures. Benjamin’s appeal to critical urban studies has much to do with his attention to how power underpins the lived experience of urban space and how historically specific subjectivities condition the perception of urban life. Indeed, an implicit aim of Benjamin’s later period was to present the city as experienced and perceived without passing the text through his own mediating influence, as expressed in the well-known claim, “I needn’t say anything. Merely show”. In this paper, I want to consider the difficulties that arise here and the lessons that can be derived for the ways in which we produce comparability in our own research, understanding and drawing together practical realities and broadcasting our own positionality. In Benjamin’s writing, we can observe an initial distrust of any ‘awakening’ that arises from a conscious project of intellectual volition, indicated by his commitments to the Proustian mémoire involontaire and the Surrealist dream-image; later these aleatoric strategies gave way to a more purposeful tactics adequate to his increasingly urgent political intentions. Reflecting on my own comparative practices, I draw on this tension in Benjamin’s work to discuss the problems of constructing a research field and a dialectical image, and the agencies we might assign to the ‘viewer’ (i.e., reader) beyond our texts.

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