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
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.
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>