The concept of metropolis

In what sense would a certain concept of the urban meet, as Henri Lefebvre asserted some thirty-five years ago, a ʻtheoretical needʼ? What forms of cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ʻgeneralityʼ would be at stake here? And if this is indeed, as Lefebvre always insisted, a question of a necessary ʻelaboration, a search, a conceptual formulationʼ, what might a critical philosophy have to tell us, today, about what kind of concept ʻthe urbanʼ is?1

Even as professional philosophy has never seemed so alienated from such questions, the unfolding social and spatial reality that provokes them appears, at the most basic level, more obvious and urgent than ever. For the first time, around 50 per cent of the worldʼs population now inhabit what is conventionally defined as urban space – more than the entire global population in 1950. Within the next few years, there are expected to be at least twenty mega-cities with populations exceeding 10 million, located in all areas of the globe. Since 1950, nearly two-thirds of the planetʼs population growth has been absorbed by cities. By 2020 the total rural population will almost certainly begin to fall, meaning that all future population growth will, effectively, be an urban phenomenon. The pace of this process can hardly be overestimated, both in general and in particular terms. Lagos, for example, which had in 1950 a total population of 300,000, today has one of 10 million. At the same time, this staggeringly rapid development also entails new forms of urbanization, whether it be the so-called urban ʻcorridorsʼ of the Pearl river and Yangtze river deltas, the proliferating slums of sub-Saharan Africa, or the eighty coastal miles of holiday homes and leisure resorts around Malaga, which, it has been suggested, may well be the foundation for a future megalopolis. To the extent that this indicates an emergent global society in which, as Lefebvre speculated, ʻthe urban problematic becomes predominantʼ, such a condition involves, then, not only quantitative expansion, but also qualitative shifts – transformations within the relations between urban and rural, as well as, with increasing importance, within and between different urban forms and processes of urbanization and the heterogenous forces which generate them. The potential generalization of social, cultural and technological productive logics at a planetary scale, and the ʻconcreteʼ networks of exchange and interaction that increasingly bind noncontiguous urban spaces together within the differential unity of a global economy, open up a historically new set of relations between universal and particular, concentration and dispersal, that clearly demand new conceptions of mediation.

If this does indeed suggest a certain ʻtheoretical needʼ, then, in one sense, we are of course hardly short of ʻtheoriesʼ of the urban. ʻThe beginning of the twenty-first centuryʼ is, as the editors of one of an increasing number of urban studies ʻreadersʼ put it, ʻan exciting time for those wanting to understand the city.ʼ2 Certainly the sociological context of a dominant urbanist–technocratic positivism after World War II, into which Lefebvre made his initial intervention, seems increasingly distant, as much because its historical connection to state apparatuses themselves was rendered progressively marginal by emergent forms of capitalist development, as because it was discredited within the intellectual arena. While, under changed circumstances, the empirical sociological literature on cities continues to grow, it is now accompanied by a rather different vision of urban studies, formed out of a resurgent interest in the work of writers such as Benjamin and Kracauer, as well as the situationists and Lefebvre himself. Weighty academic studies of the cityʼs historical development fill the pages of publishersʼ catalogues, alongside ʻbiographiesʼ, gothic ʻsecret guidesʼ and picaresque cultural histories of major urban centres, such as Paris, London, New York, LA. At the same time, this contemporary predominance of the ʻurban problematicʼ has helped, within the recent conflict of the faculties, to accord a new general theoretical significance, and political valency to specific bodies of knowledge, particularly geography – as subject to a disciplinary reconstruction by the writings of David Harvey, Neil Smith and others – as well as promoting a renewed interest in architecture, and architectural theory, as offering a privileged access to the distinctive features of our present era, from within the sphere of cultural production. Much of the work of Fredric Jameson since the early 1980s might, for instance, be thought as forming, and being formed by, such a theoretical conjuncture. 

This has helped to foster a broader shift in a Marxist-inspired political culture. If the ʻurbanʼ scarcely appears as a specific thematic within the canonical works of Marx and Engels themselves, after the late 1840s at any rate, with the various twentieth-century movements of ʻactually existing socialismʼ this vacuum tended to be filled by a series of profoundly anti-urban conceptions concerning the social and spatial conditions of political struggle. The city, Régis Debray quotes Castro as saying, is ʻa cemetery of revolutionaries and resourcesʼ – a political judgement which runs throughout Maoist, Cuban and other Latin American models of social struggle and division.3 Albeit in a more complex form, and despite the various urbanist and architectural experiments of the early metropolitan avant-gardes, this is arguably also true of the Soviet model, which maintained from the beginning an essential suspicion towards metropolitan development. In much Western Marxist theory, this judgement took a connected form in arguments about the primacy of industrialization and the factory – over any relatively autonomous processes of urbanization – within the ʻlaws of motionʼ of capitalist development, as well as in the composition of the proletariat as a force opposing it. Manuel Castellsʼs early Althusserian approach to the ʻUrban Questionʼ (in 1977) could be understood as a structuralist summation of this by-then-classical ʻorthodoxʼ position developed in explicit opposition to Lefebvreʼs supposed ʻfetishizationʼ of urban revolution in the wake of 1968 and his reconsiderations of the revolutionary form of the Paris Commune.4

Castells has, of course, in his own distinctive way, come a long way since then – effectively passing back through Lefebvre and out the other side. But, more generally, the last couple of decades have accorded a new significance to the role of urbanization within contemporary forms of capital accumulation. This has brought to the fore a new series of socio-economic questions, concerning for example real-estate speculation, monopoly rent and finance capital, and their relation to an orthodox Marxist theory of value. As such, it has promoted a renewed focus on the role of the logics of production, and of the social relations, specific to urbanization – as logics that are not reducible to the ʻindustrialʼ – and their connection to the contemporary spatial structuration of increasingly globalized flows of money, information and people. Once seemingly something of a minor stock option in the academic marketplace, the ʻurbanʼ appears today as a central concern across the entirety of the humanities and social sciences; even, perhaps, as one of the speculative horizons of their transdisciplinary convergence.

It is the broader theoretical and political questions raised by this convergence to which the following series of remarks are addressed. They seek to indicate a need for a wider critical reflection upon the specific trans-disciplinary terms of a developing ʻurban studiesʼ; in particular, a reflection upon the conceptual character of the different ʻfiguresʼ through which the socio-historical and spatial specificity of contemporary urban form has come to be articulated in and across the various fields in which it is engaged. For, as Lefebvre saw, if the urban phenomenon is indeed ʻuniversalʼ – that is, ʻa global realityʼ – the problem of the urban raises, in a particularly urgent way, the question of the forms of universality at stake in contemporary critical theory more generally, as well as its relations to more specialized knowledges and forms of cultural particularity. 

While a thinking of these processes needs to direct its focus upon the systematic character of the contemporary planetary urban problematic, such a project could, I want to suggest, still find its compass in its theoretical beginnings, in a re-reading of two canonical thinkers of urban form: Lefebvre himself and Georg Simmel. For it is, relatively uniquely, if in markedly different ways, to Lefebvre and Simmel that we owe a largely undeveloped task of thinking together something like a philosophical concept of the urban with a historical account of its emergent spatial and social forms. An adequate elaboration of this task is beyond the scope of this article. However, I want instead to pursue a more modest prolegomenon to it: a brief, and necessarily schematic, interrogation of a particular historical concept of urban form – the metropolis – which has played a persistent role within certain cross-disciplinary discourses of modern social space and spatial experience. This risks the accusation of a certain anachronism, for much weight of current opinion would suggest, not without justification, that the metropolis is a form of the urban that is in the process of becoming historically surpassed in an age of the so-called network society. Nonetheless, whatever the truth of this – which is perhaps more complicated than 15 may be supposed – it is precisely the repeated claims that the concept of the metropolis has made, historically, to a certain (ontological and phenomenological) universal significance which, I will argue, renders it of philosophical interest. Such universality has, in turn, made it a key point of theoretical mediation between a range of different disciplines, as well as allowing for its construction as a kind of ʻprivileged figureʼ of capitalist modernity itself – for art, architectural or literary history as much as for social theory – which persists from Simmel, Sombart, Benjamin or Meidner through to the likes of Rem Koolhaas today.5

What follows, then, pursues a conceptual genealogy that seeks to bring out the historical logic of the concept of the metropolis. If this is an essentially ʻphilosophicalʼ procedure, it also opens up onto some contemporary political questions, to which I will return. First, however, it is necessary to say something about the understanding of the ʻphilosophicalʼ that is entailed by the ʻneedʼ for something like a philosophical concept of the urban. This will provide the context for my first claim: that the philosophical interest of the concept of metropolis lies in its presentation as a determinate negation of the city as a historically specific form of the urban.


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