'The City and the City'
Updated: May 31, 2021
In this post, I follow a slightly different tack. I want to reflect on the politics of unequal lives through what might seem an unusual source (though, I hope by the time you have finished reading this post, you can understand why!): a novel.
‘The City and the City’, from the author China Miéville, bridges the gap between science and crime fiction. Published in 2009, the novel tells of the murder of Mahalia Geary, a graduate student living in the fictional European twin city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Chief protagonist Tyador Borlú, a detective in the Besźel Extreme Crime Squad, pursues the case and discovers a set of surprising and far-reaching points of evidence that threaten to shatter the very foundations of the twin cities.
As a cultural and political geographer, what fascinates me about this piece of fiction, however, is not the plot—rather, it is the setting. The cities that Miéville crafts exist alongside each other, intimately woven around one another in a complex and meandering fashion, but are the subject of consistent, perpetual and frequently unquestioned acts of power that keep them separate. Indeed, it is deemed a serious crime for inhabitants of either city to interact, acknowledge or even ‘see’ their neighbours and adjacent spaces.
These settings are of course fictional but, in this blog post, I want to explore what some of the specific concepts Miéville introduces can tell us about contemporary inequality. If we treat the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma as metaphors for the increasingly divided neighbourhoods in which we live (and in which my research is based), then we can draw out relevant points of convergence and divergence. The two aspects I want to examine in further detail are ‘unseeing’ and ‘breaching.’
The experience of ‘being seen’ has frequently been the focus of much politically driven science fiction. Dystopian visions of surveillance suffuse imaginations of control and the destruction of individual liberties in Orwellian settings. Miéville both parallels this theme and takes it further in an altogether more sinister direction. As well as control through surveillance via the threat of a secretive, omnipotent power known as ‘Breach’, the worlds of Besźel and Ul Qoma are governed through the self-policing and self-regulation of what residents see and don’t see.
And for tourists and outsiders, visiting either of the twin cities necessitates an educational process through which the psyche of these strangers to the city are both consciously and subconsciously directed towards what is and is not visible.
The characters in Miéville’s universe are programmed to ‘turn away’ and ‘look away’ when they come across difference. Through acts of unseeing, two cities which occupy the same geographical space are held apart.
Those who fail in the act of ‘unseeing’ – or, worse still, engage their other senses by touching, speaking with and listening to the other city – are guilty of ‘breaching.’ To ‘breach’ represents a betrayal of the illusions that hold the cities apart and is thus deemed a serious crime – so serious that it is regulated and punished by a police that itself transcends the parameters of the two cities.
Breaching symbolises contestation – but in a specifically geographical way. It is to be out of place, or to be outed as in the wrong place. In the world of Besźel and Ul Qoma, the questions of control and freedom are realised as explicitly geographical phenomenon. I am reminded of the philosopher Jeremy Waldron’s argument about the nature of being: in order to be, one must have a place to be. In the twin-cities of Miéville’s universe, people don’t control the terms upon which they are able to define their geographical lifeworlds. Put simply, they are not free to be.
From the ‘fictional’ to the ‘real’
Whilst Miéville’s universe illustrates an extreme exercise of state power over territory and behaviour, we can consider these concepts of unseeing and breaching in the world around us today.
Our towns and cities are often designed and used in a way that keeps different classes, communities and groups separate. These boundaries are not simply physical but are programmed into our behaviour – we do exercise our gaze differently based on how we perceive everyday inequalities. What we choose to look away from, to attempt to ignore, to avoid – just as importantly, what we are drawn to and can’t help but spectate – provide a key mechanism for how inequalities are exercised and reproduced.
In the same fashion, breaching reminds us that the pressure to self-govern eschewed by a control of the senses is never complete. The threat and operation of actual physical violence is necessary to encourage citizens to follow orders. In our world, these forces are usually more subtle – in popular culture, education, policies, and so on, that guide our conduct.
What I am especially interested in with my work in Kensington & Chelsea is how these norms of how we see and interact with the world play-out in everyday life in an incredibly unequal borough. Miéville’s ‘The City and the City’ raises key questions of urgent contemporary relevance for the world around us. What are the practices for seeing and unseeing inequalities? Who and what guides these practices? And how are they being unsettled, contested and re-made?
If you are interested in hearing more and/or being involved with the research, please do get in touch with me via the ‘contact me’ page. I’d love to hear from you.