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Pluralizing or Provincializing Urban Political Ecology? [In a World of Cities]

Pluralizing or Provincializing Urban Political Ecology? [In a World of Cities]

Henrik Ernstson reflects on the difference between “pluralizing” and “provincializing” urban political ecology.

In prompting the contributors to send some bullet points in relation to our special session on “Pluralizing the Approaches to Urban Political Ecology in a ‘World of Cities’”, I made a mistake and wrote the wrong word. In my email, in which I asked them to reflect on how their paper could help to “pluralize” Urban Political Ecology (UPE), I used the word “provincialize” instead. Lindsay Campbell in New York, one of the contributors, observantly pointed this out. Using the liberty of a short blog piece, I reflect on this slippage—on the difference between pluralize and provincialize—as a precursor to our upcoming session at The Dimension of Political Ecology conference (DOPE), Kentucky, USA, 28 Feb-1 March. 

While provincializing has been inscribed in a quite clear tradition of postcolonial critique, in particular by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Provincializing Europe” (2000), the word pluralizing has a less recorded academic usage. In its most straightforward reading, our session is about how one could arrive at a political reading of urban ecologies and urban environments, beyond those approaches already in use. To pluralize then is to allow for more ways of achieving a similar thing, and the word leaves open for debate what methods or intellectual traditions are better than others.

As can be noted however, pluralize stands in relation to certain approaches that are ‘already in use’. In our published Antipode article we hold that the approaches already in use originates from a historical-materialist and (neo-)Marxist tradition, often with Erik Swyngedouw’s seminar article “The City as Hybrid” from 1996 placed as the origin of UPE (as did Nik Heynen at a special session at AAG in 2013). To pluralize UPE thus becomes a tall order, since those writing from a neo-Marxist tradition have already done a great job in effectively expanding Marxist analysis with for instance post-structuralist notions (e.g. cyborgs, actor-network theory, quasi-objects; see e.g. Erik Swyngedouw, Matthew Gandy, and Maria Kaika), and they have explored various forms of power beyond those of class (Gandy (2006) in Lagos for instance; see also Alex Loftus‘ Everyday Environmentalism (2012)). In fact it is the great success of these scholars that has helped to usher in an interest in urban political ecology, and that has attracted us and others to join. How then to pluralize? 

One could for instance take inspiration from within the coordinates of the theoretically more diverse field of political ecology. This field, with a longer tradition of (non-urban) political ecological studies is more heterogenous, including feminist, postcolonial and poststructuralist, and Foucauldian perspectives etc. (see our Antipode article, Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver 2013, or here). To pluralize UPE could also mean to create variations of an historical-materialist Marxist approach, or take this approach into a new setting, a different type of city and allow the particularities of this city to speak back into theoretical debates of urban political ecology. One could aim to demonstrate how for instance (neo-)Marxist approaches might be missing something, or how they could be used in new ways; or how they would need to be complemented in certain ways in order to better render the politics and empirics of this particular city. As we write in the abstract to the DOEP session, “[o]ur own efforts has focused empirically on cities in Africa and theoretically to articulate a situated urban political ecology through postcolonial critique and a focus on everyday practices. But, this is just one path among others and in this session we encourage novel and creative approaches, or the reinvention or ‘hacking’ of established approaches, to participate in building a broad and rich repertoire of urban political ecology.”

Indeed, for all these efforts of pluralizing, and of central concern to our session, is to keep a critical edge and foreground, or pull out what is political about urban ecologies; analyzing who wins/looses, who is allowed to speak and frame urban environments, and what underlying, or networked processes that shape urban ecologies to the benefit of some, and detriment of others. And what ways and collectivities there might be that could produce more equal processes of urbanization.

From the above it seems pluralizing is simply a useful English word to indicate the wish to achieve something through other means. In relation, the word provincilizing has a more particular connotation. It has been placed within a postcolonial critical tradition and when used has often meant to be “speaking from the global South” and to de-stabilize the centrality of “The West” in knowledge production. In our published article (Lawhon, Ernstson and Silver 2013, p. 9) we draw on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2007 [2000]:location 114) term “provincializing” which is not about “rejecting European thought so much as recognizing that ‘thought is related to place’ and that universalist notions of modernity such as justice, democracy and citizenship ‘encounter pre-existing concepts, categories, institutions and practices [in place] through which they get translated and configured differently’.” Thus, to provincialize UPE is to develop a way of framing that is more attentive to place and that can question taken-for-granted ideas in order “to broaden the scope for theorizing with more urban experiences in mind.” In that article we refer to the outcome of this provincialization as a Situated Urban Political Ecology (SUPE).

From this viewpoint then, provinicializing has an origin in the (intellectual) geographies of what we now call the global South and it could be argued that it does not necessarily carry a great difference to how I framed pluralizing above—other means to achieve a similar outcome. Indeed, in the current broader conversations of comparative urbanisms like those that Jennifer Robinson, Anaya Roy, AbdoMaliq Simone, Edgar Pieterse and Colin McFarlane and others are engaging us to have, provincilizing can work as a common currency to think critically about our theoretical constructs, modes of knowledge production wherever we are. An interview between Gautam Bhan and Ananya Roy in CityScapes is also entitled “Lessons from somewhere”, without locating the geographical location of critique in the ‘global South’. In a conversation during the Antipode Institute for Geographies of Justice in Durban in June last year, which I attended with Jon and Mary, Achille Mbembe and Kelly Gillespie argued—standing in (one of) the highest towers of Johannesburg—that what a provinizialization of theory means, is to work out in practice how we can “speak from a place”; or as Jennifer Robinson insists, to take “ordinary” cities (as opposed to “world cities” like Paris, LA or Tokyo) seriously as locations from which to do theory-making, regardless of where they are geographically and physically located in the world. So in thinking with “lessons from somewhere”, to provincialize could certainly contribute in efforts to pluralize, arriving at alternative methods to achieve political readings of urban political ecology.

However, I believe something would probably be lost if we were to take the words pluralize and provincialize to mean the same thing, or produce the same effects. First of all, to provincialize is part of an important history of decentering European thought, or The West as being central in legitimizing and producing (academic/scientific) knowledge (e.g. in physically controlling the printing/editing process by having most journals and academic publishers; in building on the historical traditions of the European Enlightenment etc.). If we were to conflate provinicialize with pluralize, the intellectual tradition from Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, José Carlos Mariátegui, Partha Chatterjee, Achille Mbembe and many others would risk to be flattened, marginalized and de-radicalized, it seems. Guided by my PhD student Marnie Graham, I just read an article by Pal Ahluwalia who cites Said on “the worldliness of theory” and writes:

For Said, theory can be effective only when it is located firmly within the world. He attacks theory which fails to do so on the grounds that for such theory: “there seems to be no contact with the world of events and societies, which modern history, intellectuals, and critics have in fact built. Instead, contemporary criticism is an institution for publicly affirming the values of our, that is, European, dominant elite culture, and for privately setting loose the unrestrained interpretation of a universe defined as the endless misreading of a misinterpretation. The result has been the regulated, not to say calculated, irrelevance of criticism…”

In that sense pluralizing, if usurping the work that provincializing has done, would in fact act as a colonizer and, in taking the place of pluralizing, re-centre the often non-spoken centrality of EuroAmerica. If we fail to speak from locations outside EuroAmerica—and name them as such—the healthy skeptical and subversive tone of provincializing could come to a halt and we would loose the wish and urge to find something new and liberating. The phrase used in the interview between Bhan and Roy of “lessons from somewhere” seems pregnant with the same risk. If the place is not mentioned, if we only talk about the “ordinary” city, we risk reinserting, it seems to me, a certain naturalness or habit by which EuroAmerica is used as the location (without being named) from which to speak of the world. The reasons for this risk are several, but could be as simple as the material conditions of knowledge production (universities, scholars, editors, journals, academic presses etc. are still dominated by EuroAmerica). In collapsing pluralizing with provinicializing, the wider horizon of experiences that a world of cities are filled with, could be cut out.

In preparing for the session, and our SUPE 2014 Year of Conversation, as we so boldly has phrased it, we were quite aware of these tensions. We reasoned, if I remember it correctly, that if we were to use provincialize we would attract less interest, precisely because this word has been inscribed in a postcolonial critical tradition. Potential contributors would think that they cannot participate because they do not consider themselves to be postcolonial scholars, or that they are not sufficiently well-read in this tradition. So we opted for expressing something similar, but something that could be more open and welcoming; pluralizing does this work for us. Indeed, at heart of our SUPE Platform lies a sincere wish to contribute to a broad conversation on urban political ecology that takes a broader experience of urbanization into account, and in which you do not need to be a postcolonialist theorist, feminist, Africanist, Marxist, or Latourian, or whatever. We wish to participate in building a collaborative and supportive community open for conversation to all those interested in understanding the politics of urban ecologies and environments in a world of cities. Still, at the heart of our SUPE Platform lies the incredibly important postcolonial critical impulse (and I will confess that neither am I sufficiently well-read in postcolonial theory, but I am rather a student of it, learning about it primarily thorough its urban studies’ interlocutors). For us, working in Africa, the postcolonial impulse is especially important as it would be impossible to move ahead without acknowledging postcolonial studies.

Ultimately then, the SUPE Platform hinges on the new condition of the world. Indeed, given the greater pace and geographical extent of urbanization there is also a greater variance in how cities emerge and under what conditions urban ecology is treated, shaped and contested. Indeed, for the first time in history we face a ‘world of cities’, one in which more people live in areas classified as urban and who together with institutions, machines, buildings, plants, trees, and animals are the creators of multiple urban cultures and ecologies. Importantly, this new historical moment requires a deepened reflection on how how we as scholars can approach and critically analyze these new conditions. We need to think anew and be constructively skeptical of established theory.

Returning to our session. While the word “pluralizing” opens to a broad family of students and scholars in creating a supportive intellectual environment for experimentation, reflection and innovation in how to pull out the political of urban ecologies, it is also so that the incredibly important postcolonial impulse—and its long history or intellectual labour—returns in our title at the end. We end the session title with the qualifier “world of cities”. Thus, the session urges us to pluralize, i.e. search for alternative ways to achieve political readings of urbanization, but we must do so in a world of cities.

By Henrik Ernstson

Berkeley and Palo Alto, Feb 3, 2014

Note. My thinking on these issues have been done in mutual learning with Mary Lawhon and Jonathan D. Silver and in this short blog piece I am sometimes using a collective “we” inferring Jon and Mary in the text. However, I should be responsible for all that is written here. The SUPE Platform does not have any official principles, but it is viewed by us who initiated it (Mary, Jon and Henrik) as a growing collaborative platform for many to participate in and define.


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