Session 41

I3 Experimenting with Methods for Entangled Areas and Critical Zones

This panel explores methods at the intersection where postcolonial urban studies and experimental area studies meet ontologically inflected science and technology studies (STS) and anthropology. Rather than taking the urban as a spatial or ideological container, or a set of found objects located a determined scales from the micro- to the macro, these orientations share an interest in experimental methods assemblages that activate different perceptual, conceptual, pragmatic, and sensorial engagements. From one side, Simone (2020) called for ‘extended’ studies of what the urban might do, and could be, beyond dominant processes of spatial reproduction. In alignment with anthropological studies of pluriversal (Escobar 2020) or alter-political (Hage 2015) possibilities for reimagining and remaking realities, he encouraged searching carefully across a multiplicity of situations and encounters for “methods for piecing together a life worth living” (2). Meanwhile, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (2020) recently expanded what is known in the eco-geo sciences as critical zones composed by interlocked chemical, biological, and geological flows to encompass socio-political issues and itineraries of many kinds. In this expanded sense, critical zones involve identification of threshold situations, events, times, and places, where important relations enter critical conditions that can make or break livable urban worlds. The urban emerges as variable material and speculative composites, flows, and entanglements, which, to maintain a hold on reality must be continuously held together and maintained, or risk permanent disappearance. It is common sense to think of cities as having a certain “stability of becoming,” a term used by the unorthodox philosopher Gilbert Simondon to describe the tendency of an entity to retain stable identity through change (Scott 2014: 126). For example, it is obvious and expected that places like Bangkok change over time but given an assumption of stability in becoming, this in no way threatens their identity. But what happens when critical zones are brought to bear on the depiction of urban conglomerates as gauges of global environmental change (Grimm et al 2008)? Now the city is composed of a vast, sprawling, and densely layered set of slices of existence, traversed by heterogeneous flows, a multiplicity of relations, and divergent beings and practical ontologies. Transformation is still continuous, but there are also threshold situations, where critical flows are altered or broken, or where crucial relations start to mutate or decompose. At such times, the stability of becoming is threatened, and the city enters a critical condition. Such crises are getting more frequent in the urban anthropocene. Deteriorating infrastructures and crumbling riverbanks, polluted water and violent flooding, overcrowded living quarters and the quick spread of new diseases are signs of a growing disjuncture between apparent stability at the surface and silent transformations with unknown consequences. These crises are ecological since they involve “the ongoing creation of rapports and connections” (Despret and Meuret 2016: 26) but they are not reducible to questions of ‘balance’ in an ecosystem because they have to do with conditions of possibility for co-existence. We are in a realm of cosmoecological problems, where “no one may know ahead of time the affects one is capable of or the kinds of forces and entities that will constitute landscapes and worlds with us” (35). The urban cosmos emerges, or collapses, in consequence of different, uncommon (Blaser and de la Cadena 2017) world-making practices. What spatial methods are suitable for identifying and tackling such situations?