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Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

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état de siege: public space user manual (3 of 3)

Yet apart from the self-evident importance of the aforementioned uses of martial metaphors for the legitimisation of more totalitarian policies of public order, it is worth dwelling for a while on another two points that appear to hold centre place in the production of this discourse –– and which cooperate exceptionally with one another. First, even the most cursory of readings of relevant articles makes clear that the discourse produced today in relation to the migration phenomenon is ever-increasingly interwoven with discussions over criminality –– and therefore, with issues of public security. The cries by Dendias for undertaking immediate action in regard to the management of what he calls “illegal migration”, and the doom-like tone with which he talks about the presence of migrants in the country’s interior are typical examples of such a connection between migration and national security. This relationship, however, does not comprise a Greek novelty. Stephen Graham argues that “in all western nations, it is the postcolonial diasporas, and their neighbourhoods, that are the main targets of the new, internal and often highly racialised security politics” [1]. Graham concerns himself, at this point, primarily with the ways in which the contemporary neo-conservative discourse connects the migration phenomenon with global terrorism networks; and he stresses that “such is the conflation of terrorism and migration these days amongst the right that simple acts of migration are now often being deemed acts of warfare within contemporary military doctrine” [2]. The difference that one could spot in the Greek example derives from the content of the connections themselves. Because the conservative and far-right rhetoric in Greece, even if making a wide use of the same orientalist tools, does not see (at least, not quite yet) terrorist networks behind the migrant communities –– but instead, some more archetypal “natural dangers” and the more blatant “cultural threats” against the orderly function of the national body; elements that this rhetoric claims to be able to certify through the ambiguous conclusions of the criminological discourse. Even so, the matter of national security is still brought up. The “invasion” that the minister invokes translates into an act (and therefore, a declaration) of war.

Amidst precisely this angst to secure a discursive connection necessary in order for the migration phenomenon to be able to be articulated with the weight of a casus beli, we can distinguish a second point that holds its own weight and points at an indicative perspective for reading and conceptualising contemporary urban phenomena. This, because these hypothetical military acts do not take place in ether. And one of the aims of the metaphorical uses of war in question is to conceptualise the places of these acts in particular ways; to conceptualise, in other words, urban environments as potential environments of military operations. The criminological discipline and the military alternate in charging the semiological dynamics of migration phenomena, inherently involved in the production of urban phenomena, as a method of re-conceptualising the city’s functions. In other words, the western metropolises –– as nodes and as prime destinations of the migratory flows –– comprise some of the most crucial test labs for the new policies of security. And the reasons that would demand such a lab use are handed over freely through the theoretical discussions and research conducted by the military think tanks.

The conceptualisation of cities as fields that require police or military intervention presupposes a whole anti-urban tradition, some contemporary roots of which could be said to be expressed paradigmatically already through the Gesellschaft/ Gemeinschaft distinction, as the latter is articulated during the early days of the urban sociology [3]. The “uncontrollable” urban expansion and the swift demographic development primarily from the second half of the 20th century onward [4]; as well as particular geo-politico-economic transformations in a global scale and the intensification of migration flows resulting from these transformations (too), are merely some of the elements that made these anti-urban approaches relevant in a way [5] that the military sector and the security industry now arrive as the main coordinators of urban phenomena [6]. It is at this moment worthwhile to point out that the most popular subject of this discourse appears to comprise the slums of developing cities [7] as well as the so-called global South cities, examples that are nevertheless used as negative ideal types that are used to subsequently and respectively question every urban formation. The military manuals make clear that the valuable know-how produced in these labs of military experimentation is ever-increasingly introduced in the fields of what we term as the “first world” [8] –– that is, the “devalued” parts of the western metropolises such as the french banlieues, cases that Graham terms internal colonies [9].

For example, in his article tellingly titled Feral Cities, Richard Norton (a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College in the US) offers an indicative picture of how the contemporary urban formations are conceptualised through the tools offered by the military operations sector. He offers a number of indexes –– indexes of “urban health”, through which one can represent and assess the functions of a city [10]. This phasmatic analysis that he describes makes clear that it may concern even urban formations that seemingly function “well” and which, therefore stand in formidable distance from the negative ideal types above –– without, nevertheless, ruling out their connection with military applications and security policies. And the retired American Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, in his article with the –– also telling –– title Our Soldiers, Their Cities, explains: “ an uncontrollably urbanizing world, we will not be able to avoid urban deployments short of war and even full-scale city combat. Cities always have been centers of gravity, but they are now more magnetic than ever before” [11]. He even reaches the point of describing cities as the contemporary equivalents of the jungle and the mountain; therefore describing the operational difficulties imposed by the contemporary urban field and the need, therefore, to re-conceptualise it through the new reality imposed by the contemporary security doctrine [12]. We shall not, however, expand further on the rich speculation produced in regard to the relationship between contemporary cities and the techniques and technologies of war. Let us only keep as a fact the particular interest shown by the military sector for urban phenomena today –– some interest clearly implying the potential for the interpretation also of the phenomena taking place at the site of the Athenian example. And the more the crisis deepens, the more such an urban reading will become necessary.

Today, the structural discriminations and inequalities characterising a large part of the material and social processes that bring together contemporary cities comprise on the one hand a field for individual and collective demands to be articulated and on the other, for the growth of practices of survival that extend beyond the limits of bourgeois legality. In the face of the angst produced, therefore, by the reality of these forms of life, sovereignty strives to control and to direct the dynamics of these urban phenomena –– imposing stricter dogmas of public security and drafting increasingly often the schema of emergency (emergency decrees and orders; constant breaching of rights in the name of security; criminalisation of social demands; detention camps for refugees/migrants, etc.) in order to secure its own preservation [13]. And we would dare to claim that this legal-military-police plexus refuels, in addition, a market for the up-and-coming security industry –– developing, in this way, an entire sector with its own profitable work cycles. And just like any other industry worthy of its name, this, too needs test labs, innovative ideas and fields for experiments [14]. Elements that are generously offered today in the field that Loic Wacquant terms urban marginality. More specifically, referring to the militarised neighbourhoods of the US and Brazil, he writes: “...stigmatized neighborhoods of relegation in both countries have become the prime targets of virulent police action and pivotal sites for innovations in and exhibitions of aggressive law-enforcement through which the state ritually reaffirms its capacity for action” [15]. The security industry, therefore, needs such labs of exception [16]. And today, in the example of Athens, these lab-like exercises occupy an ever-increasing part of public space. “Law...”, in the end “... shall return to the cities”, as per the promise of Samaras, even if this means that it will return in the dark form of its own suspension.


by Christos Filippidis



[1]    Graham Stephen, Foucault’s Boomerang –– The New Military Urbanism, in Sörensen Stilhoff Jens and Söderbaum Fredrik (eds), The End of the Development Security Nexus? The Rise of Global Disaster Management, Development Dialogue, No.59, Uppsala, April 2012, pp.40 (go back to text)

[2]    Ibid. (go back to text)

[3]    See Stevenson Deborah, Cities and Urban Cultures, Maidenhead 2003, Open University Press. (go back to text)

[4]    See here Hoffman Bruce & Taw Jennifer, The Urbanization of Insurgency, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, 2004 (go back to text)

[5]    In regard to the particular form that this anti-urban rhetoric acquires in Greece today, see Vradis Antonis, The Right against the city, available through the web site  (go back to text)

[6]    For the interweaving of anti-urban approaches and the military sector see the chapter Manichaean Worlds, in Graham Stephen, Cities Under Siege –– The New Military Urbanism, Verso, London-New York 2010, pp.36-59 (go back to text)

[7]    We should hereby point out that the slums maintain their own particular relationship with the forced migration phenomenon –– being the places that nowadays host a large part of the refugee populations globally. Referring to the increase in the number of refugees in the last decade, Sörensen and Söderbaum write: “About 80 per cent of these refugees are in developing countries and many refugee camps have themselves developed in slum cities”, see Sörensen Stilhoff Jens and Söderbaum Fredrik, Introduction –– The End of the Development-Security nexus? In Sörensen and Söderbaum, ibid, pp.9. (go back to text)

[8]    See as an example the approach by the urban operations theorist Russell W. Glenn in regard to the riots of Los Angeles in 1992 in Glenn W. Russell, Managing Compexity During Military Urban Operations: Visualizing the Elephant, Santa Monica, RAND Corporation, DB-430-A, 2004, pp. 23-42. (go back to text)

[9]    See the chapter The New Military Urbanism, in Graham, Stephen Cities Under Siege, ibid pp. 86. (go back to text)

[10]  Norton Richard, Feral Cities, Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003. (go back to text)

[11]  Peters Ralph, Our Soldiers, Their Cities, Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly 26:1, 1996, pp.43. (go back to text)

[12]  Ibid. (go back to text)2

[13]  For a synopsis of the social processes that take place amidst the bleak landscape of crisis and how these interweave on the one side with the contemporary policies of public order and on the other hand with the urban materialities of the Athenian example, see Dalakoglou Dimitris, The Crisis Before the “Crisis”: Violence and Neoliberalisation in Athens,(forthcoming). (go back to text)

[14]  Here, perhaps we would question the French mathematician Poincarè, who at some point claimed that “...the war is an experimental science in which it is impossible to conduct any experiments”. Adduced in Kondylis Panayiotis, Theory of War, Themelio Publications, Athens 1999, pp. 382. (go back to text)

[15]  Wacquant Loic, The Militarization of Urban Marginality: Lessons from the Brazilian Metropolis, International Political Sociology (2008)2, pp. 66. (go back to text)

[16]  For an extended analysis of the notion of the state of exception, see Agamben, State of Exception, ibid. (go back to text)


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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...