Since one year and a half I’m a Fellow of the Urban Studies Foundation. The USF is a great and somewhat ‘old-school’ institution: they give genuine and consistent support to early career scholars without asking for any neo-liberal matrix to be filled in return. Can you actually believe it?! I invite all early careers to consider the Post-Doctoral scheme of the USF and to attend the events organised by them.
The above video shows the presentation that I gave at the USF in April this year (and here you can find those of my colleagues). The video is a summary of some of the stuff stuff I have been working on in the last year. The presentation is not very exciting – when I delivered it I was in the mist of my 9 months ethnographic fieldwork Romania (namely: exhausted). It offers, however, a good overview of my reasoning around extreme cases of urban marginality, subjectification and the nexus between politics and academia. Now that the fieldwork is over it is time for me to start thinking about the things I have experienced and observed, and to write about them. It’s time, in other words, to turn the USF’s support into something tangible and meaningful (both for them and for my research informants). Let’s hope to make this right – and to keep on rolling!
Great AAG this year in Chicago. Lots of people, stimulating talks and activities – all settled in the Windy City, which indeed is quite windy, but most of all urban: of skyscraper, tiny alley, fat large American buses, rust & rails – because it’s the elevated train that delivers it all.
At the conference I had the pleasure to act as discussant in two sessions – one around assemblage and power, the other around homelessness – and to take part to a panel organised by Joe Gerlach and Thomas Jellis (University of Oxford) on Micropolitics and the Minor (which included Cindi Katz, Kathryn Yusoff, Ben Anderson and Andrew Barry). Most importantly, I got the opportunity to present some provisional thoughts around the 8 months ethnography I undertook in Bucharest, Romania, around eviction and homelessness. The reason of this post if precisely to share that presentation – the PDF (which excludes videos) can be downloaded here. Below the title and abstract of my talk. A big thank you to Alex Jeffrey, Colin McFarlane and Alexander Vasudevan for having organised two great sessions on Political Enactment!
Inertia creeps. Micro-politics of eviction, enactment, entanglement
The paper investigates the case of 100 Roma people evicted from their homes in early September 2014, near the centre of Bucharest, Romania. Soon after the eviction, a wide range of NGOs and grass-roots activists mobilised to support them. Their effort included assistance in building provisional shelters on the near-by side-walks, where families and individuals eventually started to dwell in order to demonstrate their dissent. Through the presentation of video-ethnographic material, the paper unfolds the micro-politics of three interwoven movements characterising this story. First, there is the molar afflatus of eviction, which violently deterritorialised the life of the evicted via acting in the name of the law. Second, NGOs and activists enacted a provisional social machinery of help, learning on a case-by-case basis how to deal with the unfolding of the protest. Third, while living on the street the evicted people entangled with the urban mechanosphere, being subjected to its materialities and atmospheres – a process that affected their bodily and affective performances. The paper pays particular attention at how desire, as a productive force articulating the micro-politics of the case, moulted in the assemblage of these movements. After the initial violent deterritorialisation and the outburst of protest, desire gradually entered into a phase of inertia, being codified under the spell of a ‘normalised’ status of emergency. The paper spells out the risks associated with such inertia showing its inherently reactionary nature, and argues for the importance of grass-roots activism in keeping desire away from its normalisation.
After my PhD I spent two years working at the University of Technology of Sydney (UTS). In particular I have been working at UTS Business School. Being interested in extreme cases of marginalisation, and coming from an extensive work on homelessness, the Business School’s environment posed some challenges. I had to learn a whole new literature/method/approach, and I had also to understand what exactly is to work in a place where you (try to) ‘educate’ future ‘business leaders’. The overall thing has been quite fun – thanks especially to the wonderful people I met there, whom accepted the fact of having a melancholic ethno-geographer going around their spaces and making bold claims about their work.
The reason why I’m writing this now, after more than a year that I left Australia, is because a few days ago the new facility of UTS Business School has been opened: the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, designed by Frank Gehry. This is the building around which my research activities have been focused while working at UTS. The aim of that work was to offer a critical perspective on the School’s aim to become a “World Leading Business School” in the coming years, through the analysis of the role played by the delivery of the building and the changing in the teaching curricula in the achievement of this vision. Overall the research excavates the ways in which management education and its discourse are changing in the current global scenario, using UTS as a powerful illustrative case – since it materially and discursively fits very well within the ‘creative turn’ in management practices.
In fall this year a book about ‘Frank Gehry in Sydney’ – edited by a wonderful colleague at UTS, Liisa Naar – will come out containing two chapters written by me (about the ‘context’ and the ‘commission’ of the building). Moreover here you can find a semi-finished project about the broader urban changes going around the Ultimo area in Sydney, where the building sits, which is rapidly transforming under the umbrella of the ‘creative city’. And finally, below you can find links to two papers based on the ethnography I did at UTS, written in collaboration with Stewart Clegg – a great mentor, scholar and friend who turned my time at UTS into a smooth adventure.
PS: If you want to know more about the ways in which UTS Business School, and management education in general are changing you should follow the work of my dear friend Marco Berti – who did a terrific PhD thesis and publications on the matter.
I am co-organising, with Tatiana Thieme (Cambridge) and Elisabetta Rosa (Aix-Marseille), the following CFP for the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015. Please take it into consideration and feel free to forward it to your contacts. Thanks!
The city and the margins: Ethnographic challenges across makeshift urbanism
Michele Lancione, University of Cambridge (email@example.com)
Tatiana Thieme, University of Cambridge (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Elisabetta Rosa, Aix-Marseille University (email@example.com)
In recent years urban geographical literature has paid increasing attention to the study of marginality in cities across the globe. In particular, informal settlements, urban peripheries, liminal spaces and those inhabiting these precarious urban contexts are increasingly under scrutiny, showing a growing interest amongst urban scholars in investigating life at the margins (both in the Global North and South). Recognising that macro analyses and desk-studies obscure and essentialise the messy realities on the ground and at the margins, many urban scholars aim to engage in grounded research, and in the process are faced with considerable methodological questions about how the 21st city aught to be studied, let alone the makeshift city in contexts of uncertainty and precarity. ‘The city’ and its protagonists living on the margins are being depicted in relation to everyday modes of incremental encroachments, experimentation, and assemblage urbanism, as reflected in recent developments in urban and geographical scholarship hinging on critical academic reflection, politically engaged research, and granular portraiture of the city’s interstices. This recent urban scholarship invites us to unfold contextual dynamics of the “field” in their performative, affective, and more-than-human articulations. Studying ‘the city’ and the ‘marginal wo/men’ as separate entities, from the standpoint of pre-established theorisation, is thus no longer tenable: urban geographers can only grasp the dynamics of the city and explore the urban margins from the bottom-up.
Ethnographic methods of enquiry seem to have become obligatory passage-points to documenting and analysing the city and its margins. Participant and non-participant observations, semi-structured interviews, diary-taking, and visual methods are just few of the heterogeneous approaches deployed by current urban geographers. Yet, while the literature is rich of fine-grained accounts of how to theorise the contemporary city and its margins, not enough has been said about the empirical context shaping urban ethnographic investigations. Often, locked up between ontological constructivism and epistemological realism, these methodologies are taken-for-granted, leaving out the messy but increasingly valuable vacillations concerning how to define the ‘field’, or how the urban ethnographer should announce his/her presence as a researcher, as opposed to fellow urbanite, pedestrian, or by-stander. Urban ethnographer, put simply, is rarely fully discussed in terms of its implementation, the complex ethical dilemmas concerning positionality, and it is therefore often under-theorised as a contemporary methodology for studying the difficult, invisible, ‘no-go’ and in-between zones of cities. This raises a series of questions:
What does it mean to ethnographically investigate the city today, building on the latest developments in urban and geographical thinking? Are traditional ethnographic methods enough, or do they need to be re-thought alongside theories of ‘cityness’? What does it mean to undertake such ethnographic works at the urban margins? How can one investigate marginality on the ground without diminishing the richness of theory, and how can such investigation open up new scope for theorising life at the margin?
This session will focus on the issue of ethnographic thinking and methods in relation to the investigation of life at the margins, including research related to performances, more-than-human agencies, assemblages, atmospheres and events. We are less interested in discussing the value of ethnography in itself, and instead aim to address some of the following points:
Theorising ethnography, the margins and the vitalist city;
New ethnographic methods for new urban theory;
Re-thinking the margins through ethnography;
Following and tracing the action at the margin: empirical challenges;
Being-in-process and being-assembled: positionality at the margins;
The politics of researching life at the margin today (academia, activism, political relevance);
Issues of comparison in multi-sited ethnographies
The challenge of representation in ethnographic research
Writing ethnography in academy papers: the space of methodological account
Doing ethnography at the margins: the Global North and South
Navigating the ‘field’ in urban ethnography, and negotiating your place within in
Abstracts of no more than 200 words should be sent to all convenors – Michele Lancione (firstname.lastname@example.org), Tatiana Thieme (email@example.com) and Elisabetta Rosa (firstname.lastname@example.org) – by Monday 9th February 2015. We will notify the authors of selected papers by Friday 13th February 2015.
(The text below is a reasoning about the above video, which can be also watched here)
Today I woke up at 3am in order to get my flight back to Romania. I obviously was very tired tonight, having being around all day, but I decided to go to Vulturilor anyway. Good choice. Otherwise I would have missed the encounter with a very respectable Romanian politician: Mr Robert Sorin Negoiță.
Negoiță is the Major of Bucharest’s Sector 3, where the Vulturilor st – and thus the Vulturilor case – belong to. Besides tired people, ruined tents, cold, and a provisional fire (things that belong to the realm of the usual in Vulturilor), one of the first thing that I noticed tonight was a flyer, posted on the iron fences separating people from their old houses. The flyer was calling people to take part to a public meeting, to be hosted in a public space (a park), attended by a public figure: our endearing Robert Sorin.
And so I went, together with one of Vulturilor’s family, which we will call ‘A’ family: mother, father and three beautifully noisy copii (kids). One thing should be said loudly and clear: Negoiță, as any respectable politician would do, was perfectly on time. Seven he stated on the flyer, and at seven he was smilingly taking off his SUV to be embraced by people. By his people. I mean, not the supporters: the bodyguards. A bunch of muscular bodies surrounding him from the very start, of which I will say in a minute.
So Robert Sorin the Great takes off his SUV and is surrounded by people, and family ‘A’ is on the front line. They greet Mr Negoiță, they smile too, and here language is important: when they start talking to him they are very polite – so polite that for a moment I though ‘What the hell is wrong with them?’, ‘Why they do not jump on his head with more anger, having being in the street for almost 60 days?’. But no. Mother ‘A’ and father ‘A’ are just polite citizens inquiring their Major about their own situation: an eviction, which the Major and his predecessors have done nothing to avoid, which put them in the street beaten and dispossessed. So they ask. And it is their right to do so: it is a public meeting, public figure, etc. So mother ‘A’ says (more or less, but the meaning is there): ‘Mister Negoiță, find me a house, since I am on the street since two month, and I have four kids, please [the Romanian-polite version of ‘please’, ‘ve rog eu frumos’)
And Negoiță replies: ‘Are you from Vulturilor?’
Mother ‘A’: ‘Vulturilor 50’
Negoiță: ‘Why don’t you accept … [Pause]… What I have proposed you?’
Here we should recall what Negoiță has proposed to the Vulturilor people: a financial help to rent on the private market. Great, one could say. But one could say so only ignoring some simple facts: that the help is given only for 6 months; that it is not clear if the help is given per person or per family (a quite relevant detail, if you consider that many of these families are quite numerous); that for many of these people will be hard to find a place to rent, since they are Roma, full of kids, and with precarious working conditions; and that, in the end, to tackle a long-term structural problem (the lack of housing) with a short-term financial help is like curing cancer with paracetamol. In this sense, Negoiță’s offer is the classical political manoeuvre: it does not seek to solve the problem (a long-term solution for the evicted people) but only to claim that something has been done, or at least proposed. By refusing the offer, in the eyes of the public the evicted people end up refusing an act of benevolence, of help, and are immediately guilty of ingratitude. (Which is the most common plague for the ‘poor’: they are never satisfied, they are never happy, they want always more).
Father ‘A’ wants something more – more than being an evicted homeless guy. There is a passage in which he clearly states who he is and who he wants to be. He simply states: ‘We work. We pay’.
And here Negoiță replies, brilliantly: ‘Since you work and pay you should rent a flat!’
Father ‘A’: ‘But where?’
Negoiță: ‘The city is full of those!’
Father ‘A’: ‘The city is full… Where?’
The city is full of flat to be rented: Negoiță is right. But he is not portraying the full picture here. Let’s take the following, hypothetical case, as example. You are a researcher coming from the UK and you want to rent a flat in Bucharest. Easily 50% of the housing market is too expensive for you – you with an average income that is at least 5 times that of a Romanian researcher. So you turn your attention to the other 50%. Within this 50%, after many days spent looking around, making phone calls, and many useless appointment, you find a place that could work. In order to rent it, you have however to pay for the first month in advance, to give a deposit equivalent to one month, and to pay a lump-sump to the agent that has brought you to the place. This is a lot of money, even if you are a researcher coming from the UK. Now let’s take the same situation changing characters. Instead of the researcher you have ‘A’ family, composed by two adults having a provisional informal job, and three kids that make noise like a bunch of drunker in an open-air discotheque. Moreover, ‘A’ family does not come from the UK, but belong to the most neglected ethnic minority of the country (and possibly of Europe). Finally, they do not have the luxury of looking for an house while living in a hotel, surfing the web sipping a cold beer – but they have to do so while living in a tent, pissing in an empty parking lot, wearing the same clothes for days, etc. Indeed, Negoiță is right. The city is full of flats to be rent. But there are not enough ‘right’ people that could eventually rent them.
However, this is just part of the story. The reason why I am so glad that I went to this public meeting is not because I finally saw Negoiță’s smile (all my pleasure, really), but because I felt, bodily felt, the violence of a State, of a City and of a Town Hall that do not care about their people, do not care about dialogue, but simply try to harass and control; to appear and to hide; to go straight without ever turning back. I invite you to look closely at the short video posted above. Beside the bare fact that Negoiță run away as soon as ‘A’ family started questioning him – therefore reducing his public meeting to a matter of minutes – there are other interesting details to highlight. Have you noticed the numerous shoulders and harms that appeared in front of my camera as soon as I started filming the exchange? Did you pay attention to the flashes fired directly into my camera’s objective, in order to disrupt the filming? Did you see the guy stretching his harm in front of me, tactically impeding me to film? Or have you paid attention to the cohort of three-four guys whom, like a human wall, impede me to follow Negoiță’s escape? What surely you could not notice from the video are the numerous kicks, the bumps on my backpack, the two tackles I received from the back, the people suddenly crossing my path thus impeding me to move, and the overall bodily pressure ‘to stay back’, to do not advance, to be in place. A place, that of ‘A’ family and I, which obviously should not be the same as Negoiță’s.
But there is one more thing that is impossible to get from the video: this is the overall affective atmosphere of the place. For a moment I felt in danger – the eyes, the hands, the kicks, the muffled words. I felt in danger for ‘A’ family, which courageous exposed themselves in that meeting, and for the kid I was carrying by hand during the all duration of the video. What could have happened if I would have run toward Mr Robert Sorin Negoiță? Would have his bodyguards – who were dressed in civil clothes, such that one could not distinguish them from the crowd – allowed me and the kid to safely arrive at destination? Would have this man, this Major, this public figure, accepted a civil questioning? I did not had the chance to prove him, since he surrounded himself with men purposely trained to safeguard him from such endeavour.
What happened tonight is sad. I wish more cameras and more people were there, to catch the details of an only namely ‘public’ machine that does not allow its own citizens to peacefully question their Major. What happened tonight is sad because one should not fear such public events.
In Italy, when I was younger, I attended many public protest against the extreme rights and other fascist movements. At the time it was easier to see the enemy, to tackle it, and to defend oneself. Tonight I felt that the enemy here – in the Vulturilor case and possibly not only – is subtler, less evident, but still ready to let its violence (being that verbal or physical) to be discharged. I invite Mr Negoiță to prove me wrong: let’s have a true public meeting, one in which we can discuss the point listed above, without the need for someone’s body to intrude, to stop, to control. I do not know if this is going to happen. What I know is that tonight was a short, sad, night but also one that charged me with hope. Look at what ‘A’ family can do. I felt in danger, but is Negoiță the one who run away. And this is only thanks to ‘A’ family. One of the many families struggling against the madness of eviction and the nonsense of a privatize public realm.
Yesterday I presented my approach to homelessness at Eichstatt-Ingolstadt University, for the KU INTERNATIONAL LECTURE SERIES, Space – Society – Economy, of the Department of Geography. It was a great pleasure to be there, among enthusiast people and students, who really care about what they do!
Below you can find abstract and presentation, while here you can read about the upcoming lectures.
How is homelessness? Assemblage thinking and the de-institutionalisation of homelessness
The notion of homelessness bears stigmatisation, power of definition, assumptions on capabilities and will. These and other things do not only guide one own encounter with the poor, but shape policies and interventions as well. The power of such subjectification can be arguably compared to an institutionalisation: homeless people are institutionalised from the molar level (that of societal bias, production of knowledge, the spectacle of poverty) and the molecular one (that of the interaction with service providers, charity makers, police interventions). Relying on original ethnographic material, the presentation shows how these mechanisms of subjectification work, proposing at the same time a renovated theoretical-methodological framework to trace and assess their becoming. The conclusion will argue that the only politically relevant ouvre for homelessness scholarship is that of dismantling, bit by bit, the apparatuses perpetrating the institution of homelessness.
I am in Bucuresti since one month and a half. I live in a very depressing block, in the souther periphery of the city, full of cockroaches and with water available at random times. But I like it: there is a 24h Covrigarie not far, a 24h magazin (where I buy beers and cigarettes), and a nice market called ‘Piata Agroalimentara Progresului’. That market is the reason why I have decided to live in this area. I keep on telling myself that the reason for such a choice was related to my research, which is supposedly taking place not far from here, in Ferentari. But the true is that I liked that market too much, the first time I saw it. It is about progress. It is about food. It is about concrete and potatoes and varza and beer – it has its own aesthetics, which I love.
Speaking of love, I decided to come back to Romania for research because 10 years ago, when I did my Erasmus in Bucuresti, I encountered poverty. Real poverty. People living underground. Kids and Aurolac. Students living in blocks without current water, random electricity. People eating once a day to save money, despite what one could say about cultural differences. Orphanages of which I do not want to speak. And so on.
So I came back. And I found expensive cars in the city centre, a ‘centrul vechi’ full of bars and pubs and stuff, no more kids in the streets, and some general improvements in the infrastructure of the city. But it did not take much time for Bucuresti to show me its real face. A face made of people working – in the social sector – for free, of people without work, of people that still eat once a day (still not for cultural reasons). But one could say that I am exasperating things, that I am prone to describe more the half part of the glass than the full one, that Romania, and Bucuresti in particular, are not so bad. Of course they are not. Romania, as one of the candidate for the next presidential election states, is Lucruilui bine facut (a job well done). Perhaps.
I am turning my body to a place where I have been for the first time 5 weeks ago. This is close to the city centre, close to Piata Unirii and the Palace of People. It’s a street, called Vulturilor. Here since 5 weeks there are 20 families, which sum up to more than 70 people, living on the side-walks in front of what was used to be their house. These people have been evicted – legally so – and are now protesting since more than one month in order to get a place where to stay. (A full account of the story can be found, in English, here). Besides the technicalities of the process, what is interesting to me is precisely this word: eviction. Eviction comes from evice, to overcome, to conquer. Its violence is astonishing. It is about ripping off. It is about opening: bodies and walls. Histories and souls. Postcards, fridges, shoes, hats, underpants, pictures, tables and matresses: all expelled from the home, the relational home, the loved home, the space-cum-memories-cum-afflatus of joy and tears-cum-copii – from the home, to the street. It is about eradicating weeds from the field, where the field obliviously is the one you know – private accumulation. So people have been evicted. But these are not common people. These are angry Roma people. The reasons why they should be angry by default encompass what I could possibly grasp and write in a life, and it does not matter here. What matters is that they were (and are) angry, and that they were joined in their protest by some other people, a strange cohort of beings that do not fit in the aforementioned field as well. There is Carusel, a penniless NGO that does so many amazing things that I have not the strength (and enough Palinka) to enumerate now. It suffices to say that in Vulturilor they keep people going on, for good. They built tents, they provide food (with the help of another cohort of amazing volunteers), they bring clothes, medical help, but most of all they provide moral support, constantly, day by day, night by night. Praise to them – later on it will become clearer why. Besides them, there is theFrontul comun pentru dreptul la locuire– a name, a revolution. Another bunch of amazing people. They take care, with others, of the legal framework and try to find all sorts of alternative solutions to the street – always putting the wishes and the needs of the people first. One of them does this particularly well. She goes there every night. Talk to people. Listen to people. Gets angry with people. Amazing stuff.
So… All good, one could say. People protest. Other people help. All good. It could be so if one forgets about the most important element of the equation, a thing ceaselessly diminished by the current neo-liberal machine. Namely: the public. The public in this story has three facets. First, there is the idea that an eviction can be legal. What is legal and what is not – it should be clear – it is defined by the public and it’s public matter. So, if an eviction could be legal – and I use a language appropriate for a Cambridge’s scholar here – the public is fucked up. (Why? Eviction, from evice, to overcome, to conquer, to police, to beat, to throw everything you have out. A public that accept such violence is, by definition, not public any more). Second. Public is the space these people now occupy – both at the level of the street and at the level of media portrait. On the street, they do what Roma people do. They are noisy and loud and stuff, and I like this. Moreover, their are gradually becoming homeless, a process of subject-formation that passes through the cold substance of the rained pavement, the lack of sanitary facilities, the exposure to elements and to the rusty identity of the street. This is the public space – in the literal sense – of a trauma that the media are ignoring. So at the level of the media portrait the public discourse is reproducing the same old narrative, which serve the apparatuses of control: they are wrong, they are dirty, different, bad, lazy, and so on and so forth. Both at the level of the street and at the level of the media we have therefore two public issues: one is the trauma of bodies displaced like things, the other is the the waste of public money, time, and resources given to journalist that cannot tell the difference between a story and a reproduction of a pitiful paradigm.
The last forgotten public bit of this story is politics. I want to be clear here. These people have been evicted in September 2014. The property was sold to the foreign ‘investor’ in 2009. Where was the public-as-politic in-between? The public knew, or should have known, that the eviction was coming. If evictions, in our deranged society, are legal, it should not be legal to do not provide a solution for the evicted people – to do not find anything (social housing, substantial renting help, monetary compensation, etc) in five years! Where was the public-politic in-between? I want Ponta, the current Prime Minister running for presidency under the slogan ‘Presedintele care uneste’ to reply (and if he will reply, I ask him to do not plagiarize his answer from someone else). I want the major of this city to reply. The major of the sector. I want the media to report and reply. (But I do not expect Iohannis, the candidate running for presidency with the idiot slogan I grabbed for this post, to even understand these questions). Of course, nobody will ever reply. But the good news is: the people are still out there. Protesting, posing questions, demanding answers.
This is why the Vulturilor protest is a public matter: it is an awakening slap on each one’s face. And I insist so much on this terminology, the public, because this is what I have learned in the past five weeks on the street: the protest is affirmative micro-politics, the only afflatus that could bring our minoritatian mode-of-being to the fore, to the re-appropriation of shared means, resources, and knowledge. The public, again. What the Vulturilor’s families are doing is great. Because it speaks truth to power: it tells us, all of us, that being marginalised is not a pathology. It is just normality under abnormal conditions. A condition that can change – also in this hard, snowy, lazy, and a little bit bitchy, Bucuresti.
Tomorrow I will be part of a panel presenting, commenting, and reasoning around the terrific work that Governa, Memoli, Cattedra, Puttilli, Giua and Prospekt Photographers have done on the public spaces of Tunis after the revolution. The research, available in French and Italian here it is a great example of how to do non-representational geography today.
Below the presentation framing my intervention.
The event will be hosted by the Societa’ Geografica Italiana at Villa Celimontana in Rome, Italy, on the 16th of October, from 4pm.
I am very happy to say that we have finalised CRASSH‘s City Seminar program for next year. Hanna Baumann, Farhan Samanani and my self (with the help of Kathryn Schoefert) have put together a very interesting cohort of panelists around the theme of ‘The margins of the city‘.
The seminar will be running throughout the next academic year. Details can be found here, while the program for Michaelmas is below.