Queering the Vocabulary of Critical Urban Studies

by slutty urbanism


(first presented at RC 21 conference 2019@ New Delhi)

[Scene 1] Slutty Urbanism. The Pervert Guide to Urban Digital Platforms

Dear Urban Scholars,

Let’s face it, our cities are fucked. Injustice and polarization are transversal. Epithets like smart city, sharing economy, good practices are misleading the debate within the urban studies domain and distracting us from the complex urban problems. Which cities don’t want to be smart? Which city don’t want to transfer their good practices to other contexts? What if this normative jargon will be transformed in a provocative way to contrast the hegemony of heteronormativity? Why geography of sexualities became popular, but “homo- and queer-phobia” remains deep seated in urban studies? What if we start to address this reticence and related exclusion dynamics and uneven urban development? These dynamics of exclusion and marginalization penalize urban communities at the intersection of sexualities and gender, ethnicity and social class. Queer as been always associated to promiscuity with a negative connotation. As ‘Slutty Urbanists’, we work at the intersection of queer studies and urban studies. Our aim is to develop a vocabulary where we privilege a provocative jargon, in which promiscuity, sluttiness, perversion, work as a tool-kit for a vision on the current and future urban realm. Sexual freedom and rights are fundamental but also the more neglected one. In radical geography, to the same extent, the Right to the City is defined by David Harvey as:

“far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

‘Slutty Urbanism’ tackles the openings and enclosures in the (digital) urban arena. It addresses issues of diversity, subjectivity, social responsibility and activism. Slutty Urbanism (SU) is a provocative concept. We make use of the metaphor of ‘slut’ in two ways. Symbolically, it expresses the harsh forms of extraction and extreme commodification of urban space through global digital platforms. It goes beyond the cultural-symbolic façade of sharing economy and technological determinism of smart city. Semantically, ‘sluttiness’ has been associated with major four epithets: pathology, sin, amorality and promiscuity. We look at each of them to talk about particular powerful actors reshaping urban space and access to cities in Amsterdam and other global cities.

Smart city for women? Sounds like amphetamine for housewife in the ‘70s

The techno-determinist ideology typical of smart city discourse does not consider differences and diversity. The tendency is indeed to homogenize cities with surveillance policy, e-governance strategy (Savini, 2019) and create a profitable market-place for IBM, CISCO in which governments purchase products to get their cities smarter (Rossi, 2018). Smart for whom is still an important question? The research produced on the relationship between gender and smart city is quite shallow in terms of social and gender justice (more sources). It simply claims that if women start to re-design and planning cities, magically they will become smarter and smarter.

We do think that a renewed vocabulary, less prescriptive and normative, can be powerful in exploring the digital practices of such actors as Airbnb, city makers, ‘smart’ city governments, and delivery platforms. These are dispossessive forces in terms of resource (re)-distribution nowadays. Current urban political economy debate does not fully take into account the explorative potential of new concepts and metaphors. Invoking the concept of slutty, we want to address the ambivalence of platform capitalism at urban scale. SU opens up careless academia that is utterly incapable to deal with the current acceleration.

However, feminist geography developed from the late 1970s onwards, building on the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and radical geography’s challenge to examine and to transform spatial divisions in society. A principal argument was that gender roles and the uneven and unequal positions and power of women and men in society had up to then been largely ignored by geographers (Hall, 2018).

Feminist geography has been both supportive and restrictive in this respect. Reviewing the development of work on geographies of sexuality, Bennie and Valentine (1999) argue we need to move away from a simple mapping of lesbian and gay spaces towards a more critical treatment of the differences between sexual dissidents. Over the past two decades, feminist geography primarily devotes its effort to change gendered divisions in society and in urban space. It is the application of feminist theory (Cindi Kats, $; Gibson-Graham, $; Judith Butler, $) in human geography. Part of this commitment is to transform the practices and structures of geography itself. To that end feminist geographers have made critical interventions into the conduct of research in geography, “introducing feminist epistemologies that challenge the hubris of masculinist formulation of science as objective, neutral, and value-free, instead arguing that research always has a positionality that produces situated knowledge” (Hall, 2019).

Radical and critical geographies are the last barricades to fight the emphasis on techno-determinism, planetary urbanization epistemology and creative class brainwashing. David Harvey still resists with the book titled Rebel Cities (2012), nothing even close to smart city paradigm, it is a rebel one. Another significant contribution against the ‘smart heteronormative jargon’ is by Kevin Rogan “Anti-intelligence: A Marxist critique of the smart city” (2019).

SU is a response to the primitive digital urban revolution under way. The aim is to address entrepreneurial enclosures, legalistic bureaucracies and cleansed heritage ghettos, our answer should be no longer a constructive one: our counter strategies might be offensive and promiscuous. SU maps the messy nexus of urban space abuse. We open up digital networks, splicing in subversive politics. We sully the sanitized literature of digital platforms and urbanism. And we cast doubt on the salvationary belief system of openness. Indeed, what is ‘open’? On a platform, openness requires a timetable arranging the lifestyles and temporalities of accessibility, a task manager, a gatekeeper. Openness always welcomes some and barricades out others. To be open, some doors need to be closed. ‘Openness’ is thus an exclusionary privilege promoted by commercial digital platforms, exploitation and enclosure by a different name.

Urban promiscuity against heteronormativity. Slutty Urbanism against Smart Urbanism. Urban space and digital space reveal intrinsic heteronormativity. The example of Spotify family is a clear signal of these inequalities. Twitter,

Agnieszka Leszczynski (15 September check!)

“This is so normative. Location for policing & enforcing some cockamamie 1950s ideal of the nuclear family which never existed… predicated on a def of “family” as people who live in the same residence while 1/2 of NA adults live alone (tho this is changing w/ the housing crisis)”

Urban platforms. Networks. Politics. These terms can no longer be tidily compartmentalized, but are interrelated, folding and slicing through one another. Our chapter argues for a (re)turn in geography to the political, placing it front and centre in the urban debate. Key to this politics is the digital. Increasingly urban space is digitally mediated, initiating a ‘digital turn’ that forces urban scholars to reconfigure their existing understandings of the city and question the ways in which digital urbanism is produced by and through social, political and technological processes.

A Slutty Literature Review

An Open Call to Freedom and Spatial Expression

Google urbanism project (url) is a counterhegemonic attempt to ask something back from Google…

We shall speak to power, we shall promote ethical production and consumption, and we shall speculate promiscuously about more emancipatory alternatives. After all, our digital urbanism is still under construction. Space wants to try out new things… We believe that for urban studies to remain urban, we should pioneer an approach which emphasize the promiscuity and not the parochial, Chicago boys view in urban studies.

[Scene 2] The activist time for intervention

The ambiguity is the quality that moves us. The ambiguity forms questions, but it needs reformed vocabularies. To address the commodification that takes place today, it is not enough to speak of accumulation of capital. The pleasurability, the desirability that urban platforms and other forms of creative urbanisms generate are the things we want to grasp. The selective pleasurability of neoliberal urban development poses question for activists, academics, city municipalities, developers: who are we working with or against? What pleasures do we take from the neoliberal city ourselves?

Looking for the vocabularies of desirability and forms of commodification as two sides of one process, we turned to the queer theory. In her book ‘Two or three things I know for sure’, Dorothy Allison writes the following: ‘Two or three things I know, but this is one I am not supposed to talk about, how it comes together — sex and violence, love and hatred. I’m not ever supposed to put together the two halves of my life — the man who walked across my childhood and the life I have made for myself. I am not supposed to talk about hating that man when I grew up to be a lesbian, a dyke, stubborn, competitive, and perversely lustful’. How it all comes together, the sex and violence, the love and hatred, is also the question we ask.

This brings us to sex and lust, to the border intimacies on the one hand and mainstream discourse of division between private and public, normal and perverse. This division has not been theorized better by anyone than queer theorists. Let us turn to paper by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner ‘Sex is public’. Envisioning queer intimacies and queer futures for them necessarily asks for the analysis of ’‘the fundamentally unequal material conditions whereby the institutions of social reproduction are coupled to the forms of capitalist culture, while contexts of queer world making depend on parasitic and fugitive elaboration through gossip, dance clubs, softball leagues, and the phone-sex ’.

At the same time, queer, border intimacies, as they write, ‘give people tremendous pleasure. The spillage of eroticism into everyday social life serves as a transgressive force’. The queer project, for Berlant and Warner, serves the support of collective activities outside the heteronormative idea of privacy.

Collective activities and emancipated sexualities and intimacies are the manifestoes we want to follow in our analysis and transformation of contemporary urbanism as well. For that we turn to the figure of slut. Slut in our work is not a metaphor. It does not refer to the ephemeral relationships, but to the contrary. Slut is a configuration of contemporary neoliberalism. We want to think of urban relationships as slutty relationships: both emancipatory and exploitative, lustful and draining. Slutty urban relationships promise joy and recognition, but are often trapped in the practices of exclusion and isolation.

Another source of inpiration for our analysis and practice are queer atists and activists. One group in particular of an interest here. The gay shame — a collective that was brought together in the end of 1990s in New York, has been dedicating their viral interventions into the system to the criticism of the ideology of shared economy and technooptimistic vision of the city. In their interventions, erotic, intimate are used as the tools of pinpointing the exclusionary effects of creative urbanism affecting the bodies which are more vulnerable to the commodification processes. In intervention from 2002, The Exploitation parade, a body strolling the podium, catwalking to expose the pleasure of aesthetic capital, was representing exploiters of ‘the past, present, and future,” in categories like Gentrification Realness , Displacement Divas, and Eviction Couture. The vocabularies of fucking, seducing, loving and hating were mobilized to oppose the dreadyurbanisms that city inhabitants face today.

[Scene 3] Creative heaven/haven Amsterdam

Let me start with a paragraph of quote from someone who is in the team of the current most popular nightlife scene in Amsterdam. The place is called ‘de School’. It’s a creative community reuse a vacant school. Inside of the school, there are venues for parties, small indie music concerts, cafe and restaurant, gym, offices for creative workers: event programmers, graphic designers. They present themselves as a community. People who have offices in this community also contribute to certain marketing work of the community: visual design layout, photography, event program etc., This is what they say:

“One of the main ideas behind our projects is always to work with the same community of people. Most of the team at De School had a connection to Trouw. Also, our projects are always temporary; first there was Club 11, which evolved into Trouw, and De School is also a temporary project that will last five years. We want to always use buildings with multiple functions so that we can really contribute something to the city and not just to clubbers. If you don’t provide something for the people who live in the neighborhood, then you’re just invading and providing for quite a small group of people.

It also helped that De School is temporary and more than a club, as the city knew it would improve the neighborhood and make people want to be here. There’s not much happening around here because it’s right next to the highway and there are a lot of office spaces, which is great for a club because no one’s here after 5 p.m. or in the weekends. Of course, the question of gentrification makes things a little more complex, because yeah, now that we’re here, it might be more appealing for people to live here or start a fancy coffee place — at least for five years, anyway.”

Why use this case? Don’t get me wrong, we are not gentrification police. It’s no shame to admit that as young professionals in the city, we also enjoy our weekends in these places. There are also friends’ friends who have their art studios in de School. We know they are also struggling to survive, there is no other better option than join and move nomadically with this community as a creative tribe. Although everything is temporal, but everything they build up together now will help to find the next place. They are the fearless frontline soldier as well as victims of gentrification. Being in the community is a solidarity way to survive.

So what’s wrong with this permanent-temporarily engagement with vacant urban venues and creative community? In the micro scale, it seems nothing wrong with it. Stakeholders in the game all got what they want: creative crowds have places to work; party crowds enjoy their night life; middle class residents enjoy cafe and gym; property owners get away from squatters, have someone to manage their empty properties simultaneously accumulates the social and cultural capital, wait for the best moment to change them all into investment financial capital. There is nothing wrong with this ‘win-win’ situation, just as if there is nothing wrong with the legal brothel and red light windows in the red light district.

The feeling of something wrong started to kick in when we see the news about a group of refugees in Amsterdam called ‘We Are Here’ occupied a vacant social housing blocks which are waiting for renovation project to kick-off, and very soon got kicked out in 2 weeks.

We realize, at the end of the day, there is a selection, inclusion and exclusion process even about who are allowed to use vacant properties. Rather than a simple and happy secret of urban regeneration formula, it’s about whether potential users can re-commodified or de-commodified these residual urban spaces.The reason de School can use the vacant school for 5 years but not the refugee group is clear, it’s not just about ‘a little complicated gentrification problem’, but the ‘community-building’ inside and outside of the creative hub would achieve things refugees’ shelter never would achieve. Take de School’s previous version ‘Trouw’ as an example, Trouw was the former headquarter building of a dutch newspaper, after the intermediate reuse phase of nightlife venue, now it’s a student hotel and high class gym. Foreign students came to study in Amsterdam pay 800–900 euros monthly for a room.

If we escalate to an international scale, taking Amsterdam’s privilege world capital into account, with millions of visitors’ per year, thousands of delegates came every year to have learning excursions. What would they learn from these cases? How would they transplants this model to other cities? How many winners and victims would multiply from Amsterdam to Delhi?

Without slut shaming of any actors in the game, as well as not using the slut as a metaphor, but a figure, a configuration, a web of slutty relationships in neoliberal city that distribute the shame, responsibility, and victimhood, we propose the analysis of these relationships in a respective distributive manner. We want to think of accumulation and desiribilities together, to step outside of the neat academic vocabulary.’