On preferring to not cease to exist: a mini book review

I just read Felix Ringel’s engaging if theoretically quite heavy monograph, Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest Shrinking City. The title is slightly misleading (as the author admits), but it’s well worth reading, excellent anthropology. It’s a story of when (urban) growth ceases to orient collective effort.

It deals with the fact that cities shrink as well as grow. Personallly I’d have wanted more about how life in such a situation gets arranged and rearranged, and some more on how urban growth became such a fetish in the first place.

But I guess the book’s emphasis is elsewhere, for instance on theory. It makes sophisticated contributions to social science debates on temporality and broadly philosophical questions about emergence and becoming.

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This jumped off page 168:

“Instead of waiting for emergent new ideas, many people in my fieldsite … were busy trying to keep things alive. If they had not made the effort, these forms would have ceased to exist.”

The book, after all, describes people and events involved with sustaining. Its protagonists, though preoccupied with the future, are not only anxiously scanning for future potential or seeking ways to control uncertainty and risk (as neoliberalism and academics typically do).  They are busy keeping things alive.

That insight helped me discern something new (for me) about how people in general deal with social and environmental change that they don’t like. Isn’t the activism that fascinates me about keeping alive the things that activists do like? Whether in urban gardens, repair clubs or sharing initiatives, as in the Helsinki I’ve been curious and written about, or in the practical activities of citizens maintaining “their club, association, school or kindergarten” that Ringel writes about, those who are recognised as activists really are making things exist.[1]

In describing life in Hoyerswerda, a shrinking postindustrial city, Back to the Postindustrial Future dwells mainly on something I remember quite a few Germans talking about 25 years ago when I did my doctoral fieldwork there: the “no future” phenomenon, which they referred to using the English words. A key difference is that I was doing research on environmentalism, so the lost future in question was planetary, whereas Ringel’s focus is on a city with supposedly “no future”.

Hoyerswerda was once home to 70 000 residents but over half its population migrated out after German reunification and the dismantling of the local coal industry. Like in so many other parts of the reunified Germany, unemployment “roared” (to use the lovely word from page 5). Ultimately, losing a future the city had grown used to, also meant a disorientating deconstruction of Hoyerswerda’s cityscape.

Things are complicated there, as elsewhere, by investments that were made in the past in large-scale and programmatic futures. Those futures were part of the socialism that was built in and for the German Democratic Republic. They materialised for example in education, or in the building of entire new towns. Other futures have emerged through programmes of integrating the city into a neoliberal global economy, and the “spatially widened, increasingly inclusive metanarrative of change” (p. 51) accompanying these.

Insisting from the start on there being many different futures and future narratives in Hoyerswerda, the book also surveys a depressingly same-y and ubiquitous narrative of urban futures. This is the prescribed optimism of zombie neoliberalism, the dogged determination of so many decision makers to adopt criteria of urban success designed by and for corporate elites.[2]

Drawing explicitly on David Harvey, Ringel sees the situation in the context of global capitalism’s mode of urban development as a competition for foreign investment. He writes, “Like so many other small- and medium-sized cities worldwide, Hoyerswerda failed in that competition – and blamed itself and its wrong image for it” (Ringel 2018: 141).

Yet the story isn’t so simple, and it’s far from over. Although youth continue to leave, new traditions are taking hold in the city. Above all, the book describes a wealth of pedagogical and artistic work centered on dealing creatively with painful loss and experiences of powerlessness. And although the book doesn’t discuss social movements directly, its analyses of how the past and the future are used in the present spoke directly to the question that bugs me decade after decade: how might one best understand activists who explicitly want to influence social and environmental change?

It’s a question that I’ll be pursuing at the Finnish Society for Environmental Social Science (YHYS) annual colloquium in a couple of weeks. In my abstract for a panel on environmental justice, I promised a paper titled ‘The nature of urban growth and the meaning(s) of environmental justice’.

In addition to drawing on Ringel’s work, writing my presentation will also push me, once again, to engage with Bruno Latour’s take on environmentalism.

Latour seems unhappy about how stubbornly environmentalists remain wedded to modern epistemologies that reify nature and science. What they should be doing instead is, as he says in an interview published earlier this year in the journal Social Movement Studies, “rethinking nature and science”. I critiqued his work twenty years ago on this same score, and I think I may have to do so again.

Perhaps this just means that things move rather slowly in academia despite so much talk of urgency and need for change. Then again, many of us are pleading, are we not, for the chance to slow down thinking.

Whether to laugh or cry that I find myself so irritated by the same, massively influential author who so inspired me all that time ago, I’m still rather enjoying all this. Particularly when I see ethnographic engagements still put to wonderful conceptual use in works like Ringel’s Back to the Postindustrial Future. His book is about temporal reasoning and a town and has nothing explicit to say about social movements. Still, I think it has already helped me update my own thinking about that topic. Thank you Felix.

I wonder whether Latour’s new book – ordered already – will do the same. If it does (and maybe even if not) I may do a “review” of that here too.

[1] To put it in a different language that’s also popular, they’re doing ontological design. Or, since all design is ontological in that it makes ways of being and doing possible (or enforces them) as Arturo Escobar might say, they’re doing design. But this is a diversion.

[2] It’s a story unfolding in Helsinki too, as construction continues to make the city attractive to financial interests, tourists and, perhaps, shoppers rather than citizens.

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