Barber, the city, and the necessity of untying the hank

Benjamin Barber was someone I always wanted to interview. His thoughts about cities, democracy, and global exchange resulted not only interested but also, in a certain way, inspired to me. Barber’s work can be placed in two different scenarios: one political and another academical. In the first one, and talking specifically about cities, perhaps his most notable achievement was the creation of the Global Parliament of Mayors in 2016.

That idea started to have a solid shape in 2013 with the publication of his book “If Mayors ruled the world.” There, Barber was analyzing our current global situation and speculating at the same time about the validity of living organized on nations. According to Barber, this world was facing up a series of issues that seems were overpassing the capacity of Nations for dealing with them.

Trafficking of drugs, terrorism, or climate change were some of the Examples he proposed. Barber’s book suggests that nations are obsolete forms of living together. They were made for war. Meanwhile, cities were conceived for trading. those last geographical formations, due to their configuration, result in a better option for handling the global situations we are exposed.

For Barber, the characteristics that are making the cities our best alternative are, among other things: civic trust, participation, creativity, innovation, and cooperation. Nevertheless, far of being a näive-positivist book such as Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City,” The Barber’s one is a pragmatical and down-on-earth piece of work. Proof of that is the already mentioned Parliament of Mayors, a decision-making organism base on the principles of cooperation and the right of the self-governance.

Nevertheless, in my case, the second scenario where Benjamin Barber’s work is located, the academical one, offers a more engaging possibility of understanding and applying his way of seeing our planetary reality. I want to focus this point on a situation where his most important ideas can be unmounted and decomposed piece by piece far of any political intention. My plan is using those parts for creating new concepts, other notions, following his way of thinking, but not his intentions.

It means I won not talk about “how cities can…” or “how democracy is good because of…” or “why mayors should…” No, the objective of this entry is continuing walking through the path of “the local” but twisting this notion a little bit more, basically jumping from the idea of cities to the concept of particular places.

As a quick reminder, Barber’s work’s political scenario is not here being under discussion. This post is not about self-governed communities. My point is what if we do what Barber did: skipping an old an unfunctional model of organizing and studying elements for replacing it with a more dynamic and objective one. The intention of continuing using the concept “city” for explaining how our current reality is (re)produced results inconvenient and counterproductive in the same way that to keep “nations” as the central model for organizing us and being ruled.

There are nowadays some voices up against the excessive usage of the term “city” in both academical and non-academical fields for explaining the current global situation we are living. Neil Brenner and his Urban Theory Lab are one of the most visible scholars in this discussion. Nonetheless, the concern about “cityism,” more than being just a terminological opposition, is a full program that considers necessary the elaboration of new (post-city) epistemological concepts for understanding our urbanized world.

But although my intentions have the same spirit of confronting the city as a valid academic concept from STS, my idea is dispensing with big and dense theoretical ways of interpreting the world that is there, and focus our glance on the emergence and posterior stabilization of temporal and traceable associations affecting, negotiating and transforming specific locations.

Following and unmounting Barber’s intentions of going to the specific, I imagine doing ethnography of situated places, objective, and traceable territories instead of dealing with vast, abstract and unconnected metaphors, for instance, the idea of using the “city” as an epistemological resource. What is a city, by the way?. Nonetheless, this is not a matter of scale. It is a simple situation of position and location.

Understanding the urban as a set of temporal and mutable locations is situating our efforts on the emergence of the particular. There, an objective vision is plausible as well as the potentialities of following and describing how the social is composed and continually transformed.

The inspiration that Benjamin Barber’s work produced on my work is reflected on the way of going out the traditional models for organizing the set of elements we use to call as the society. Of course, I untied the hank a little bit more, but after all, I cannot deny his influence on the things I currently do.