Review: Dobraszczyk et al. (2016) ‘Global Undergrounds: Exploring cities within’

This book review was written on behalf of the RGS-IBG Urban Geographies Research Group, and is reproduced here with their permission. For more book reviews, and for an overview of their current work, please go to: http://urban-geography.org.uk/

Dobraszczyk, P., López Galviz, C., & Garrett, L. (2016) “Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within.” London: Reaktion Books

ISBN: 978-1-78023-576-9

Reviewed by Peter Forman

Depth is currently proving a popular dimension for geographical analysis (Elden, 2013; Bridge, 2013; Graham, 2016; Squire 2017). Dobraszczyk et al.’s (2016) edited collection, ‘Global Undergrounds: Exploring cities within’, published by Reaktion Books, contributes to geographers’ efforts to document the relationships between underground – and often unseen – environments, and typically more familiar social formations on the surface. Their book consists of an extraordinarily extensive collection of ethnographic accounts that vividly narrate experiences of underground sites from across the planet. From sewers, storm drains and built-over waterways in cities such as Istanbul, Bogotá, Las Vegas, Cape Town and London, to tunnels, caves, catacombs, mines, metros, data centres, bunkers, and nuclear storage sites, the breadth of accounts is matched only by the diversity of the collection’s authors (which include cultural historians, urban geographers, geographers of art, history, politics and culture, sociologists, archaeologists, journalists, artists, and scholars of literary studies and the history of science). Indeed, the book comprises the single largest collection of subterranean stories to date. Illustrated with over 75 full-colour photographs, it invites its readers to repeatedly dip below the surface, guiding them on a series of fleeting, but evocative, below-ground excursions.

This emphasis on the affective forcefulness of subterranean environments, and the ways in which undergrounds assert themselves on human bodies (both corporeally and cognitively), is a unifying theme in this collection. Dobraszczyk et al.’s principal aim is not just to emphasise the connectedness of ‘above’ and ‘below’ ground spaces, but to dispel any notion that the underground is a purely technological domain; a linear site/surface that simply supports ‘above-ground’ structures. Readers are called to appreciate the astonishing multiplicity of ways in which subterranean environments and urban existence have been, are, and increasingly will be, mutually constitutive. Undergrounds are presented as sites of analysis that can help us to better understand what it means to ‘be’ in the world: a question that drives the broadly phenomenological approach of these accounts. We are invited to travel alongside the writers as they make their descents; to vicariously experience these below-ground spaces, and along the way, to ‘remain mobile’ in our imaginations (p. 16) so that we might become sensitive to new connections between the surface, subsurface, matter and human practices, and so that we might develop new appreciations for how urban life is fundamentally entangled with the dynamic and vital worlds beneath our feet.

A second objective, and one that is particularly relevant to urban, rural and cultural geographers, is to expand the sites understood to constitute urban life. Many of the locations discussed here exceed the spatial limits of what is traditionally thought of as ‘urban’. From the mushroom-shaped bunkers strewn across Albania’s rural landscapes, to a proposed nuclear storage site 100 miles outside Las Vegas; or to the Svalbard global seed vault, located far from any centre of human population, the authors present us with a variety of underground environments that appear distinctly removed from urban life. Yet these disparate spaces are shown to be intimately linked. Urban existence is shown to be predicated upon distanced undergrounds, and these sites are revealed to be products of urban ways of life. The authors consequently offer an account where what it means to be ‘urban’ is significantly expanded.

The book is unusual however, in that it does not try to rigidly group these accounts, nor does it try to neatly tie together the numerous loose threads that multiply along the way. It is purposefully open-ended. Its thirteen thematic sections are loose and overlap, and there is no conclusion through which these tangled stories are folded into a coherent narrative. Instead, what the underground is, and what its relationships with the surface are, frays and multiplies. As the editors reflect, the aim was to create a book that is ‘less documentary and more aspirational’ (p. 20); one where readers can make their own connections, and are inspired to join in in documenting the underground. It is an exercise in opening up, not closing down.

This is not to say that connections are not explicitly drawn. Indeed, the book is at its strongest when it grapples with social inequalities and threats to human life rendered visible through studying these spaces. Highlights include accounts of how undergrounds illuminate the violences of socio-political structures on the surface, from the forcing below ground of left-wing political advocates and impoverished inhabitants in Bogotá (who shelter in city sewers to avoid death squads), to homeless people in the USA, who are forced underground by neoliberal policies, finding shelter in places such as the bottom of Whacker Drive, Chicago, or in the storm drains of Las Vegas.

Yet ‘Global Undergrounds’ is not flawless. Whilst the editors claim to depart from the exoticism present in existing accounts of undergrounds, they are only partly successful in this endeavour. There is a familiar language of mysticism and otherness that liberally peppers these stories, and the book presents the reader with a vision of multiple subterranean worlds waiting to be explored, ready to be mined for scholarly profit. When combined with the book’s many photographs, its grand geographical scope and its journalistic style, the result is a pervasive sense of voyeurism that is reminiscent of well-known accounts of early explorers. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that many of the writers self-identify as explorers themselves.

Yet whilst this might seem significant, it is not a substantive critique. This language is often communicative of the existing myths and imaginaries that surround these spaces, and it is testimony to the way that these environments make voluble utterances. Whilst geographers might question the nature of the subterranean gaze promoted in this book, the underground is not reduced to a speechless and passive ‘other’: it speaks loudly through its ever-present materialities, and through the ways that it draws in its narrators.

Perhaps most significantly, one of the book’s great successes is also the way that it consistently illuminates alternative narratives that would otherwise remain buried. From the lives of the present-day homeless living in sewer networks, to the forgotten histories of cities past, or the stories of exploited workers who constructed these spaces, care is taken to avoid privileging the narratives of those ‘who have the power to plan, transform and manipulate urban space’ (p. 17). As such, whilst I am wary of the language accompanying these accounts (and the necessity of this must be reflected upon), its negative consequences are not immediately clear. It may simply speak of the significant allure of these environments, or perhaps more cynically, of its value for promoting an underground research agenda. If so, then the authors have certainly achieved their goal: I aspire to know more. Reading ‘Global Undergrounds’ is an invigorating experience – one that raises far more questions than it answers, and one that urges its readers to continue the work its authors have begun.

References

Elden, S. (2013) ‘Secure the Volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’ Political Geography 34(1) pp.35-51.

Bridge, G. (2013) ‘The Hole World: Scales and spaces of extraction’ New Geographies 2 pp.43-8.

Graham, S. (2016) ’Vertical: The city from satellites to bunkers’ London: Verso

Squire, R. (2017) ‘’Do You Dive?’: Methodological considerations for engaging with volume’ Geography Compass 11(7) pp.e12319. <https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12319&gt;

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Teaching: Student Debate

IS SECURITY MORE IMPORTANT THAN PRIVACY?

This post previously appeared on the student-run blog for my course ‘Critical Security Studies’. The course ran over the summer semester of 2017 at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Tübingen. To access this site, please click here.

This week marked the final seminar of our summer semester course on ‘Critical Security Studies’. To round things off, students took part in a class debate that looked at the tensions between the imperative for security in a period of increased instability and the need for personal privacy. Students were tasked with representing a number of societal interests, including those of government, commerce, and members of the public. Representatives from each group began by first preparing a 5 minute outline of their position, after which the floor was opened for discussion. Challenges were then made across the represented organisations regarding the political implications of different stances.

Topic highlights included: challenges over who/what the referent objects of security were (national security, personal security, economic security, environmental security, etc.), as well as what the threats perceived to necessitate particular security measures entailed; questions over the capacity of governments and regulating bodies to keep up with technological change and adequately legislate/regulate the behaviour of corporations and intelligence agencies; the capacity of these organisations to protect personal data from hackers and state-supported cyber-attacks; fears over the marginalisation and vilification of certain social groups through these methods; the lack of transparency and accountability within the processes of sovereign decision making (including in the formation of security algorithms, the collection of data, and the enforcement of these decisions); the implications of the position ‘you have nothing to worry if you are not doing anything wrong’; and the distinction between ‘feeling secure’ and ‘being secure’, which entailed a fascinating and detailed student critique of what it actually means to ‘be secure’. Discussion was brisk and light-hearted (albeit with a meaningful punch), and the debate topped off what has been a thoroughly stimulating and enjoyable set of conversations that have taken place over the previous thirteen weeks of this seminar series.

New Paper: “A Material Politics of Citizenship” – Citizenship Studies

Our article for Citizenship Studies is now out in early access! Entitled ‘A Material Politics of Citizenship: The potential of circulating materials in UK immigration removal centres’, this paper forms part of a special issue edited by Gaja Maestri & Sarah Hughes on contested spaces of citizenship.

In this article, Sarah Hughes and I explore the ways in which acts of citizenship are mediated through the actions of diverse materials. Drawing on doctoral research conducted by Sarah Hughes (Durham, UK), we describe how the materials circulating out of UK immigration removal centres can hold within them the potential for the making of new claims to citizenship, and how certain materials consequently become subjected to different kinds of governance practices. We also draw attention to how the political entanglements that these materials may form in the future may exceed our understanding, potentially opening up unexpected future claims to citizenship as well as troubling the notion of human intent within every kind of citizenship act or practice of resistance.

To view this paper, and other papers in this special issue, go to Taylor & Francis’s website: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13621025.2017.1341659

If your institution does not have access to Citizenship Studies, please contact me on peter.forman[@]wiso.uni-tuebingen.de. I have a limited number of free codes, so first come, first serve!

Teaching: Contemporary (In)Securities – A student-run course blog

Contemporary (In)Securities - Critical Security Studies at the University of Tübingen

As part of our ‘Critical Security Studies’ course at the University of Tübingen this semester, students have been tasked with critically applying different approaches to security to contemporary political events. Check in regularly for new posts covering a broad range of topics, including security discourses in the so-called ‘EU migrant crisis’, the governance of Ebola, the visualisation and rendering actionable of climate futures, and performances of cargo security in European ports!

www.exploringsecurity.wordpress.com

Update: eThesis available now – Securing Natural Gas

Exciting times. My thesis, entitled ‘Securing Natural Gas: Entity-Attentive Security Research’ is now available via the Durham eTheses service!

Thanks again go to my supervisors, Louise Amoore and Ben Anderson for their help in getting this out, and also to the insightful comments from my examiners, Jason Dittmer (UCL) and Gavin Bridge (Durham).

It can be accessed via the following link:

http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/12139/

Recommendation: “Security/Mobility: Politics of movement”

Congratulations to my friends and colleagues for the publication of their recent book, “Security/Mobility: Politics of Movement” – edited by Matthias Leese (Zurich) and Stef Wittendorp (Tübingen), and representing a much needed contribution to attempts to bring security and mobility together.

The book includes chapters from: Marie Beauchamps, Marijn Hoijtink, Matthias Leese, Bruno Magalhães, Sharon Weinblum, & Stef Wittendorp, Louis Lobo-Guerrero &  Friedericke Kuntz, Andreas Bauer-Ahrens, Erella Grassiani, Nat O’Grady, Gianni Gkolfinopoulos, Sharon Weinblum, Stef Wittendorp, Christine Quinan, Bruno Magalhães, Marie Beauchamps, and Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet.

PUBLISHERS’ DESCRIPTION

‘Mobility and security are key themes for students of international politics in a globalised world. This book brings together research on the political regulation of movement – its material enablers and constraints. It explores aspects of critical security studies and political geography in order to bridge the gap between disciplines that study global modernity, its politics and practices.

‘The contributions to this book cover a broad range of topics that are bound together by their focus on both the politics and the material underpinnings of movement. The authors engage diverse themes such as internet infrastructure, the circulation of data, discourses of borders and bordering, bureaucracy, and citizenship, thereby identifying common themes of security and mobility today.’

 

http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526107459/

Event: AAG 2017 – “Exploring the Modular, Material and Performative Politics of Security”

AAG 2017 – Exploring the Modular, Material and Performative Politics of Security

Organisers: Peter Forman & Nat O’Grady

Session dates and times tbc.


Critical geographies and security studies have led the way in dealing with the complex material entanglements and transformations that underpin and organise, but also complicate, modes of governance and security (Adey and Anderson, 2012, Aradau, 2010). Insight has been unearthed with particular efficacy, we feel, when security has been thought of as a set of practices and performances (O’Grady, 2015). Examples of such performances range from moments of interface with digital technologies; at the front line in an emergency’s wake or real-time unfolding; or at the borders between nation states. Whilst such practices might be said to hinge upon lively material objects in their execution, they must also be appreciated for their constitutive effects, whereby they bring into being new material conditions.

In organising these panels, we encourage participants to reflect upon the politics behind security practices and the ways in which these politics may be unpacked, through exploring their constitutive materialities and the new material conditions that they bring about in their performance. In this manner, we hope to examine the different ways in which security practices are configured, attending to their logics, aesthetics, temporalities and spatialities, along with the material assemblages and affective forces that rise to prominence in their performance. In so doing, we hope to call to the fore and open up the politics of dynamic material and immaterial security practices.

Keywords: Security, Governance, Modulation, Agency, Assemblage, Performativity, Emergence, Relationality, Mobility


SESSION (I) Exploring the Modular, Material and Performative Politics of Security – Novel Security Strategies and Datafied Mobile Governance

Marieke De Goede

 “The Chain of Security”

Ilia Antenucci

The Security of Logistics and the Logistics of Security. Privatizations, Power Assemblages and Political Order”

Btihaj Ajana

Datafied crossings and the embodied refugee”

Till Straube

Interfacing Predictive Policing Devices”

Lior Volinz

Privatized and Pluralized: Modular Security provision with and beyond the State”

SESSION (II) Exploring the Modular, Material and Performative Politics of Security – Socio-Material Performances and Subjects

Elspeth Oppermann

Energetic entanglements with heat: the (in)security of workers’ bodies in the practice of securing the grid”

Andrew Dwyer

A More-than-Human Security: Performances of a Malware Politics”

Rhys Machold

Relational materializations: waging ‘success’ through mobility”

Patrick Weir

“Becoming Securitized? Assemblage theory and Re-Materializing the Copenhagen school of security studies”

Patricia Noxolo

Reading Erna Brodber for gendered in/securities”

SESSION (III) Exploring the Modular, Material and Performative Politics of Security – Panel Discussion

Discussant: Prof. Phil Steinberg

Panelist 1: Prof. Louise Amoore

Panelist 2: Peter Forman

Panelist 3: Prof. Pete Adey

Panelist 4: Dr. Nat O’Grady

Panelist 5: Dr. Kimberley Peters