The identitarian city and the constant potential of proximity

The identitarian city
Foto: Jeppe Wedel-Brandt

We are living in a time where nationalism, alongside a wide range of other identitarian movements based on religion, race, class, etc., is gaining more and more power over our shared lives. In different contexts, being Danish, Muslim, French, Croat, Russian, Orthodox Christian, etc., is becoming a worship of something eternal and unchangeable, something that is constantly delimited and marked as meaning something special, an identity that you, in a narrow sense, must follow in order to find enjoyment and receive a share of the goods in being this. Not primarily, as is often stated in public debate, because of identity politics, where inequalities and injustices based on discrimination of particular groups are pointed out by reference to group identities. But because of identitarian politics, where hierarchies and unequal distribution are established or enforced by reference to eternal and unchangeable group identities. Identitarian movements, which are not based on any ethics or idea of the good, but on the simple fact of being something, are these years growing almost everywhere. But being, for instance, Danish does not carry a meaning in itself; it is a construction, which has a historical and social function and in that sense is not without significance; but it is still a constant construction, the delimitation and significance of which is constantly negotiated, and therefore it has no inherent meaning. Identitarian movements must over and over insist on the delimitation and meaning of identity by physical or symbolic violence. 

Edin Hajdarpašić suggests viewing nationalism as ”a political project that is fundamentally open-ended and impossible to complete.”1 A project, that includes a compulsive movement to, over and over, nationalize the national subject and delimit it.2 We do not need to see this as exclusive to nationalism, but may regard it as part of identitarian movements in general, for example when being Muslim is not about striving for that principle of the good, which God is an expression of, but an identity that is constantly delimited and worshiped. Identitarian projects are homogenizing movements, but life is heterogeneous, made up of differences, and therefore, identitarian movements must again and again construct that eternal and delimited identity, which they worship.

The city is often posed as the opposite to nationalism and other identitarian projects, as the melting pot in which the homogeneous is mixed and bastardized, as a per definition anti-identitarian and heterogeneous space. With statements such as ‘in the city, there is room to be different,’ there is often a focus on many different groups and (sub)cultures’ concurrent existence in the city.3 Or, in a more complex understanding, the city as the space, in which ‘the civil’ can take place, and new norms and identities are created because of the proximity to others and the following need to solve concrete problems together.4 I do not wish to completely reject these classic ways of looking at the city, but will attempt to qualify them and challenge the understanding of the city as a simple anti-identitarian constant by pointing to the fact that it is often exactly in the urban space identitarian movements are unfolding. 

Shared space and shared life
Identitarian movements unfold in space through violently insisting on identity and the closure of spaces for alternatives. But that does not mean space in itself is a neutral field, a blank or abstract space. Space is per definition heterogeneous. Space is created by being lived in, by it always being (potentially) shared with others. It is the recognition of the other’s potential existence in a shared space; the meeting of the other, even when it is created through the negation of this meeting.

Living is always living in space, not an abstract or geometrical space, but a concrete space. A space, which can be sensed and experienced. But also, a space, which is lived and thereby created. To live is to build, to move things around and create signs in space, but it is also the construction of a psychogeography, that creates routes of movements and gazes, and an understanding of and significance to the space that you live. When I look out the window, I do not see an abstract, geometrical space, I see the houses on the other side of the street, which together with the houses on my side make up the street, I am used to experience as space, almost without thinking about it. That is, it is a concrete, given space I experience. And so, it is a space I share with others, which others can potentially find themselves in and experience. It is because of life being connected to spatial existence that life is always connected to the (potential) existence of the other in the same space as oneself. Another existing in the same space as me, but also another who, like me, is creating the space we share, is building it, creating signs in it, live it.5

As such, space is always heterogeneous, but that does not mean the city always is. Exactly because life is lived spatially, it is also to a large extend spatially, identitarian projects create their homogenizing movements, the fundamental mode of operation of which is to disconnect heterogeneity by violently splintering it and inscribing identity in space.

Segregation and the distribution of the sensible
Space being heterogeneous is not the same as being able to find this heterogeneity and point to it. It is a fundamental condition of life and as such of space, that it is always made up of differences rubbing up against each other, but at the same time there is always a form of order: an organization of these differences and their significances, an organization of life in space. Jacques Rancière suggests calling this organization the distribution of the sensible; simply put, the consensus we have on what we notice and what is invisible, unlistenable, etc., what makes sense and which sense it makes, our sentimental education, and, not to forget, what belongs where. Any community has a distribution of the sensible, certain ways of understanding things and certain ways of doing things, that is simple enough. But with Rancière it is important, that one of the primary ways by which this unfolds is through spatial definition and through spatial labor. We are not only given a part – or a number of parts or roles – but also a place in which these parts belong. It is not a centralized distribution stemming from the state, not even if we add Louis Althusser’s understanding of ‘ideological state apparatuses,’ but a distribution which “stems as much from the assumed spontaneity of social relations as from the rigidity of state functions.”6 Rancière names this distribution and the reinforcement of it the police, not understood as the ones we know from the street with blue lights and batons, but as the actions we all take, which keep things the way they are. “Policing is not so much the ‘disciplining’ of bodies as a rule governing their appearing, a configuration of occupations and the properties of the spaces where these occupations are distributed.”7 As such, the creation of space is central here; one of the main ways through which the police function is by saying: “Stay in your place!” In that way, the distribution of places and parts to a large extend functions by placing and keeping certain bodies in certain spaces, in which the distribution of the sensible decides and retains what is visible and invisible, sound and noise, which parts of life and society belongs to this space, and which ways of being belong here. Exactly because of this, it is important to look at creation of space, when we attempt an understanding of a given police order. What is given space where? And how is the stability of these spaces secured, kept from meeting each other in a way, that would create insecurity regarding this order?

This logic, that creates order through distributing parts and places, can be found in all spaces and all communities, from personal relationships, through working places and activist ‘free spaces’ to the broader society. But a more concrete way to approach this, when talking about urban spaces, is to look at patterns of segregation. A mode of analysis, Teresa Caldeira explains: “Segregation – both social and spatial – is an important feature of cities. Rules organizing urban space are pattern of social differentiation and separation. These rules vary culturally and historically, reveal the principles that structure public life, and indicate how social groups relate to each other in the space of the city.”8 The idea is, that by looking at how groups in the city are kept apart – and how they act in the urban space – we can learn much about the way in which society is organized, around which tensions and inequalities in connection to e.g. class, race, gender, and identity groups, society is orchestrated, and in which ways this orchestration is retained as order. Naturally, patterns of segregation are not only the passive result of the social order, they are to a large extend creators of this order. Concretely, when we speak of patterns of segregation, which create e.g. unequal access to infrastructure and resources, or result in a housing market where some groups are pressured out of certain neighborhoods while other groups gain by increased property values. But also, a bit more abstractly in how groups in society are viewed and view each other: proximity to others, but also the way in which we rub up against each other in the cityscape is an important factor in how we regard ourselves and others.

Proximity as resistance to identitarian movements – but not to identity
Many of the most important reforms of modern society can be regarded as resulting from the proximity of the rich and powerful to the poorer classes. Disease, crime, violence and riots are among those factors which made the proximity of the poor a problem for the powerful, and thereby created the necessity of aspects of the city, such as sewerage, police, health services, and pest control, but also expansion of cities and differentiation of neighborhoods, be it with poor suburbs and rich city centers, or other types of ghettoization, or with gated communities and security measures, to annul this proximity and keep groups in society apart. Proximity to others in society is a very concrete way in which the problems of different groups are not irrelevant to each other.

Here, public space plays a central part. It is in the public space, we see the other and are forced to recognize our concurrent existence in the same space. This recognition is in many ways a minimal relation, which does not automatically lead to a solidarity with or acceptance of the other; just as, in many cases, a forceful repression take place, making invisible many of those with other parts in the space. But, we can still regard this proximity as the minimal condition for recognition of the other as part of the same community as yourself, as a life relevant to mine – hereby not said that solidarity can only occur with the close other, my point is rather that it is the experience of the close other, which makes it possible to build an ethics by which the remote other can also be seen as a relevant life. 

It is the meeting with the other, which ruptures the homogenizing movement of identitarian projects, and thereby (re)opens the fundamental heterogeneous existence. At one point in Kønnets katekismus (“The Catechism of Gender”), Lilian Munk Rösing suggests viewing gender in connection to skin: “Defining gender by skin is to place gender in the space between man and woman. The gender emerges in the touch between the two genders, in the ethical meeting between man and woman the contours of gender are drawn. They are not ‘man’ and ‘woman’ before meeting each other; they are defined by the very difference. As such, the question of what gender is, is not the question of what a woman is and what a man is, but what there is between them.”9 It is in the touch of my skin with the skin of the other, that I emerge as a delimited subject: “[T]he skin defines (= delimits) the subject in the meeting with another skin, or: the skin is the line between the subject and the other subject, which defines them as subjects.”10 It may at first sound paradoxical, because we often see touch as something that happens between two finite subjects – you touch me – but the point here is exactly a critique of this way of thinking identity (here gender) as being something on its own. What Munk Rösing suggest is basically that nothing exist which is something on its own; instead everything is defined by differences – heterogeneity – and as such it is not before meeting the other, when we rub against each other, that what is me emerges as delimited from what is you.

With Munk Rösing, skin is concrete physical skin, but it is also metaphor, as ‘what is between them’ or as that, which rubs up against each other. It is neither the meeting between two already whole figures, nor the melting together into one, but the dramatic creation of an unstable I, that only in connection to the other is delimited as particular. We can find a similar description with Dževad Karahasan in a text on Sarajevo, in which he describes the culture created by the city (and which he sees being lost in the war) as dramatic multiculturalism: “Every member of a dramatic cultural system needs the Other as proof of its own identity, because one’s own particularity is being proven and articulated in relationship to the particularities of the Other. But within a dialectical system an Other is only seemingly the Other, while it is actually the masked I, or the Other contained in myself.”11 The dramatic multiculturalism for which Karahasan argues here, is an understanding of identity, by which it makes sense to speak of Croat, Serbian, Bosniak and Jewish identity in Sarajevo as identities, which can be regarded as different, but not as separate from each other, in the sense that they are dependent on the proximity to and dramatic rubbing up against each other. This is opposed to “the epic man,” who sees himself as a continuation of an epic monoculture, which is homogenous and closed in on itself; that is, a subject which understands itself as being independent of the touches of and rubbing up against the others.12 Or as Munk Rösing puts it: “If I cannot experience the other as an interface of touches, I experience her as an attacking body, and that means I build a shield instead of a skin.”13 That is, the erection of a shield around the I, which then is experienced as something in itself, something which stands alone. But on the other hand, rubbing up against the other is also distinct from the aggressive penetrative drive towards melting into one, what Karahasan describes as dialectical multiculturalism. 

We see here as well, that the recognition of the existence of the other in the same space as myself is not enough for solidarity or for opening to the fundamental heterogeneous condition, that the spatial existence always makes up. The way, in which we meet each other and the way, in which we deal with the shared existence in space are also of decisive importance. In taking on what he calls lived nihilism, the loveless and hope-less life, signified by “a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world,”14 Cornel West formulates a part of the answer this way: “The vitality of any public square ultimately depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together.”15

Identitarian violence and the opening of proximity
Now, I return to my starting point, that we cannot simply see the city as the heterogeneous, in which there is room for everyone, and where the finite identities are constantly challenged. Even if I argue, that existence exactly by being spatial is defined by heterogeneity, by the other’s (potential) experience of the same space as myself, and that the city, by proximity to the other, facilitates a recognition of this relationship, this fundamental condition is never found undisturbed – there is always some sort of order, or distribution of the sensible, which work against this fundamental heterogeneity, create places and parts in space, make some things visible and others invisible, create a way in which we meet each other, and give identity. This is where, the specific meeting, the proximity to the other, with whom I rub up against, and in that sense, create both of us as particular subjects, is a constant opening toward the fundamental heterogeneity and the shared, which is between us in the meeting or the caress. Or, at least a constant potential for this opening.

It is exactly this constant opening, identitarian projects attempt to cover up and make impossible. As a constant condition of spatial existence, it can never be removed – even in cases where all other identity groups are removed or exterminated, the other within one’s ‘own’ identity group will still always be there as the other, opening to the heterogeneous condition, e.g. to other ways of being a Dane. It is this constant and compulsive re-nationalization of the national subject, Hajdarpašić is referring to. Since the homogenizing movement is always unfolding in a heterogeneous condition (human existence being always heterogeneous as it unfolds in space, which is always potentially shared with others) it is never finite; it is forced to cover the differences up and make them invisible or inaccessible, over and over, through violent, physical and symbolic, imposing of the identitarian project.

Here, it is important to understand violence as a creating force, not simply the result of conflict between for instance established identity groups, but, as e.g. Max Bergholz argues, in itself creating these groups as forcefully distinct and in opposition to each other.16 This violence can be an extreme splintering or destruction of the existing space, whereby the conditions of possibility for heterogeneity are splintered.17 But it may also be the constant erection of symbolism in the urban space, which create or reinforce a conflict between separate and firmly delimited groups – be it through large monuments and buildings of symbolic, identitarian significance, putting up flags, naming roads, questions of who and what is to be remembered with statues and memorials, or through indentitarian graffiti or the performance of identity through actions. It can be through separation in institutions, firmly locked patterns of segregation, be it in housing or the use of urban space.

The identitarian city is a violent machine, that by physical and symbolic violence constantly keep us apart and create firm identity groups, which appear as something having a meaning independently of each other, showing the ‘right’ way to be Danish, man, Muslim, Polish, worker, academic, etc. Facing the identitarian city, we can’t content ourselves with finding and fighting patterns of segregation, which keep us apart in the city space – even if this is also important – but must also focus on the conditions and the violence, that keep us worshipping what we are, understood as an essence, as something to stand on its own, independent of rubbing up against the others. The formal proximity has a potential, but the way in which we meet each other, and the way, we are kept from understanding ourselves as depending on this meeting, is something we must face and fight as well.

Another version of the Danish version of this text is being published by Bypolitisk Organisering in the book Nærhed, with a number of other texts on proximity in urban politics. The book is expected to be released in the beginning of the coming year.

1 Edin Hajdarpašić: Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840-1914; Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press (2015), p. 201.
2 Edin Hajdarpašić: Whose Bosnia? Nationalism and Political Imagination in the Balkans, 1840-1914; Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press (2015), p. 2-4.
3 The classical example of this type of urban theory can be traced backto The Chicago School – se for instance: Robert E. Park & Ernest W. Burgess (red.): The City – Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1992 [1925])
4 See for instance Saskia Sassen: ”Making the Open City and Urban Identities the Hard Way” in visAvis # 3 (2010), pp. 42-43 (online on visAvis' site here)
5 Here I draw quite extensively on Martin Heidegger’s ”Bauen, Wohnen, Denken” as well as Martin Cowards reading of this text as central to the argument that Dasein is always also Mittsein. Martin Heidegger: ”Bauen, Wohnen, Denken” i Gesamtsausgabe, Band 7: Vorträge und Aufsätze; Frankfurt Am Main: Vittorio Klostermann (2000), pp. 145-164. and Martin Coward: Urbicide: The politics of urban destruction; London: Routledge (2009)
6 Jacques Rancière: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy; Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press (1999), p. 29.
7 Jacques Rancière: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy; Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press (1999), p. 29.
8 Teresa P.R. Caldeira: City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo; Berkeley: University of California Press (2000), p. 213.
9 Lilian Munk Rösing: Kønnets katekismus; Frederiksberg: Roskilde Universitetsforlag (2005), p. 108. My translation from Danish.
10 Lilian Munk Rösing: Kønnets katekismus; Frederiksberg: Roskilde Universitetsforlag (2005), p. 120. My translation from Danish.
11 D?evad Karahasan: ”City Portrait” in Sarajevo – Exodus of a City; Sarajevo: Connectum (2012), p. 17.
12 D?evad Karahasan: ”City Portrait” in Sarajevo – Exodus of a City; Sarajevo: Connectum (2012), p. 27.
13 Lilian Munk Rösing: Kønnets katekismus; Frederiksberg: Roskilde Universitetsforlag (2005), p. 112. My translation from Danish. I have translated the Danish word ”berøringsflade” to ”interface of touches” – the word is most often used as interface, but literally means surface of/for touches.
14 Cornel West: Race Matters; New York: Vintage Books (2001), pp. 22-23.
15 Cornel West: Race Matters; New York: Vintage Books (2001), pp. 11-12.
16 Max Bergholz: Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community; Ithaca: Cornell University Press (2016), see e.g. pp. 312-316.
17 See for instance Martin Coward’s argument for this in the case of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Martin Coward: Urbicide: The politics of urban destruction; London: Routledge (2009).