In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Constellations of Urban Modernity from Theory to Practice

Authors: Murray Mckenzie*, University College London
Topics: Urban Geography, Qualitative Methods
Keywords: Comparative urbanism, Walter Benjamin
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: Balcony A, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Comparative urban research is a domain of vibrant experimentation. The comparative project has entailed the provincialization of historical epicenters of theoretical production and the construction of new constellations of urban experience, while the archives of Western urban thought have been creatively re-assessed and put into dialogue with ideas originating outside metropolitan centers of intellectual power. Nevertheless, as several scholars have recently observed, challenges remain, not least in terms of how to place urban contexts in relation to others, how to generalize across instances of urban phenomena, and how to realize comparability in practice. In this paper, I return to Walter Benjamin’s incipient comparative imagination, to examine how challenges of producing comparability were manifest in his incomplete or paradoxical methodological formulations and his experiments with original methods and practices. Benjamin faced a problem in the relationship between himself as researching subject and the constructed, comparative objects of his research: he came to distrust constellation and montage as products of his own intellectual volition, construed as inimical to chance, discovery, and surprise, while also recognizing the need for active critical intervention appropriate to his increasingly urgent political intentions. I argue that cosmopolitan urban research, alert to co-existing possibilities and spatially exteriorized and historically dispersed understandings, might find itself ambivalently poised on the unresolved cusp of similar oppositions. Thinking with this problem, I ask how constellation might be recuperated as an imaginary attuned to postcolonial imperatives, conducive to discovery and surprise, and poised to ask new questions of the world.

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