Jane M. Jacobs took over as one of the co-editors of Society and Space earlier this year.  The interview below, conducted by Deborah Cowen, is the first of a planned three interview with the new co-editors. Stuart Elden will interview Peter Gratton, and Natalie Oswin interview Maia Green in coming weeks.



Deborah Cowen: Thanks so much for talking to us Jane. Lets start with your current work. Can you tell us about your high-rise project?

Jane M. Jacobs: For some time now – too long possibly, given how responsive research agendas seems to be nowadays – I (we really) have been investigating what we call the ‘many afterlives’ of a particular building type. That building type is the residential high-rise. More accurately, my small research group has been investigating the afterlives of a particular housing vision. It is a vision that combined architectural modernism, state-sponsorship, bureaucratic management, and aspirations for modernization through universal housing provision. What we have been investigating is the modernist-inspired, residential high-rise of state-sponsored mass housing schemes. You can see, from the many qualifiers I put around our architectural type of the ‘high-rise’ – modernist-inspired, residential, state-sponsored, mass housing – that we are already talking about something that is more complicated than a mere building type. One can see such artefacts in many places across the globe, for this was a vision and a typology that proliferated. Our interest has been specifically with manifestations in Britain and Singapore, although we could have gone to any number of other contexts.

Conceptually speaking, the start point of the project lay in the play between repetition (modernism’s repetitious formalism, modernization’s repeating logics) and difference (how such repetitious forms and visions did not quite replicate in full, and how they gave rise to, and quite literally housed, difference). Initially, this was a worry about a representational logic associated with claims about cultural homogenization under globalization, a worry that seemed very live at the time (the late 1990s) when two of us in the team were fully immersed in identity-linked postcolonial theory. In short, what are the stories of differentiation embedded the high-rise as a global artefact? That representational press is not so much active in the work nowadays, although the postcolonial threads underscoring that start point remain to be teased out in the main (yet-to-be-written) account of the study.

Initially our curiosity about what on the surface appeared to be merely a built form made me, as a cultural geographer, feel like I had stepped into some backwater of geographical thought – back to the old ‘log cabin’ geographies of built forms as cultural expression in the landscape. As a cultural geographer, I always knew that our curiosity about high-rise modernism/modernization would bump into this now largely out of fashion legacy and would need to manage it. That was the key purpose of my essay ‘A geography of big things’, which acknowledged the link of my work to that older geography of architectural forms but tried to re-invigorate this area by linking our research programme to some current thoughts on scale, materiality and socio-technical relations.

The high-rise study, as I mentioned earlier, is grounded in two case study locations. That empirical focus is further honed on two specific high-rise buildings: one block in the Red Road housing estate in Glasgow and one block in the Bukit Ho Swee estate in Singapore. These blocks were built around about the same time and in nationally variant expressions of 1960s, state-led (welfarist) modernization. They are embedded in two quite different fortunes of the high-rise housing idea:  in Glasgow the block is coming down, expressing the end of that housing vision in the UK; in Singapore the block has been upgraded in a context in which high-rises are being built to even higher heights expressing the ongoing investment in this housing vision. In selecting these two case studies we wanted to capture a self-evident repetition that resulted in self-evidently different outcomes. These different outcomes have been labelled (in popular and political discourse) as high-rise housing ‘failure’ and high-rise housing ‘success’. The accounting for this success and failure has been robust and thorough. Those causal accounts of these divergent outcomes focus on differing national policy frameworks, and their differing levels of investment and systems of management – a political economy of housing. Our work has not disputed the relevance of those accounts of high-rise success and failure. But it has tried to do something different to this. It has sought to subsidise these accounts by an alternative mode of thinking about the high-rise object: one that better grasps the diversified assemblages of power and practice that gives rise to ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

Empirically speaking the project has engaged in a loose comparative project, wherein we have replicated building biographies for these two cases. I am reluctant to really dub this double case study work as comparative, in the old senses of that term. Recently I have commented in a special forthcoming issue of Urban Geography on what I think my model of multiple case study work can do. My 1 + 1 ‘method’ is never conducted in the name of a unitary, reductive answer (of, say, ‘2’). I work in multiple cases because of the potential of a world understood as differentiating and contingent. It is a methodology that is, in part, indebted to Deleuzean thinking and how that attends always to the  ‘AND between the two’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 34).

The other interesting thing about this project from my own point of view is that this has been a collaborative project. My collaborators are another geographer – Ignaz Strebel, who now works in architecture at ETH Zürich – and an architect – Stephen Cairns (who also happens to be my husband) who now also works at ETH Singapore in their City Futures initiative. Working in collaboration, and across disciplines, has been challenging and rewarding. I have learnt a great deal about the value of visualization not simply as a post investigation illustrative tool, but as an in-research, speculative, concept-generating and expressive tool. This understanding came about in part because we used video-ethnography, where one comes to learn quickly one is generating a scene in and through the camera, not recording a scene ‘out there’. But it was also learnt through our use of speculative concept and design methods derived from architecture.

DC: Where do you see this work going? What kinds of questions are emerging out of this work that you didn’t anticipate?

JJ: This is one of the finest grained studies I have conducted for a long time. With fine-grained, ethnographic work analysis and output are slowed – or at least they are for me. We have masses of material to work through, post-produce and analyse. We have used a web-site to get a quick dissemination of some rough draft thoughts and early stage edit video sequences.  We have also slowly started to publish from the work. That publication effort has focused thus far on a set of inter-related themes:

  1. the socio-technical achievement of the thing called a high-rise – a thematic that is in conversation with Latourean ideas.
  2. Governance of everyday life (and aesthetics) via the delivery mechanisms of high-rise living – which is in conversation with Rose’s (Foucault’s) ideas on governing the soul.
  3. The visual orders of high-rise living, from the view to the cctv camera. Here we have tried to say something about the need for visual studies to engage more effectively with the materiality of the visual.
  4.  The knowledges of high-rise housing. This research has looked at the ways in which certain kinds of bureaucratised, scientific knowledges underscored the high-rise projects. This includes transnational knowledges.

Of course, a key concept that this work has built on is that of ‘building event’, and from the outset we have thought about how the high-rise materialises and dematerialises as an event. We have only started to articulate in publication the theoretical basis for that thinking – which is essentially Deleuzean. Recently others have started to take up the term ‘building event’ and take in exciting directions – towards affect and emotion. Along the way, some of these authors have been a little hard on our project. Personally, I feel that they are criticizing a project as yet unwritten. For example, the ‘building event’ theory paper is not quite complete and is as yet unpublished. So one of our immediate aims is to make that statement, although at this point in time given how the term is already being picked up by others, it feels like it will be a posthumous statement! But this says something of the pace in which we are forced to work with our ideas nowadays. It is not fashionable or wise (nor even really allowable) to ‘sit’ on an essay in order that it feels better ready to go forward to the public.

Even then, a theoretical statement on building events will not do the work we really want to do. This will require a book – working title is Building Events –  and this book will be theoretical but will also be empirical in focus. It has been too long between books for me. Longer than I would like. This slowness has in part been to do with the intensity of this project’s ‘data gathering’ phase, in part to do with how slow data processing and analysis takes with video data, and in part to do with the fact that I have been attending to raising my young daughter during this time, as well as everything else we do as academics.

At some point in the future, I would like to have the time to better elaborate my thinking on the comparative project in geographical thought, past and present. Not least because this is so linked to a postcolonial politics, and would also satisfy my own interests in how research is done/conceptualised. Jennifer Robinson has done a great deal to rethink comparativism through the long developmentalist legacy of area studies, but I would like to make a case for something more everyday and incoherent that goes on in comparativism.

I also would like to think more about inter and multidisciplinary team work and what it really means. I recently noted in a co-written piece with Pete Merriman (in Social and Cultural Geography) on geography and architecture that for all of geography’s newfound interest in architecture, little of the scholarship done in the name of ‘geographies of architecture’ is done with architects. There is a bigger story to be told here of disciplinary skepticism, and how these disciplines are differently place in systems of knowledge making and world building.

Currently I am co-authoring a book on architecture and waste, with Stephen Cairns. This book takes a perverse view of architecture which, historically, sees its project as production. We are uncovering its alter ego – its wasting, its destructive aftermath, its entropy. It is a challenging write as the tone has to be open and erudite, not tight and overly academic. It takes much of the re-theorization of waste and value to the architectural object. It takes up most of my time now.

We are also involved in a museum-linked project with Glasgow Museums. Red Road is now being demolished and all the ‘data’ we collected (interviews, records of public protest meetings, tours of homes with residents, and ethnography of the concierge at work) are now valuable social history assets. The Museum there has an OpenMuseumsection that has the remit of bringing the museum to parts of the community that cannot access the museum routinely (the elderly, the hospitalised, some school situations). They service these users by producing ‘handling boxes’ and ‘travelling exhibitions’. These are smallish boxes and panels that can be loaded in the back of a car and taken to the user group. We are embedding an array of our visual data in a travelling box, which will be used as an aide mémoire a series of memory workshops for the wider, state-sponsored Red Road Flats Legacy Project. We have branded this object/project “Red Road in a Box’, and we hope to launch later this year.

DC: How does this work connect to your earlier research? How have your interests and questions changed?

JJ:At the end of the 1990s I emerged from a long period of scholarship within the field of postcolonial geography. That research was inflected through my own specific interests of course, which were largely around colonial Australia and its long aftermath, but also how such politics are articulated in and though urban spaces. That period of research was intensely productive, and resulted in Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City, a lesser known postcolonial co-authored book Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and identity in a Postcolonial Nation, as well as the co-edited Cities of Difference.  It was a wonderful period of research and output for me and I had that feeling of momentum that one only occasionally enjoys in one’s career as a researcher and writer. It was also a time when I could draw on much earlier, but largely unpublished, research I did on indigenous land rights politics and cultural property politics in rural and remote Australia.

My concerns then were very consistent with those of critical colonial and postcolonial studies more generally. It was about rights and recognition, but also about identity questions. My own work was interested in the ways in which the state’s attempts to restore rights or to recognise indigenous needs and grievances resulted in complex political contradictions. So for example, my early 1980s work on indigenous land rights argued that the structures of state recognition, excluded a wide range of indigenous people who were not deemed traditional enough. This resulted in a very compromised politics for indigenous groups seeking to have recompense (not to mention sovereignty) over lands lost through colonial appropriation. I read the planning battles around new build versus heritage in late 1980s London through a similar lens. The state was mediating in these panning battles by limiting the terms by which future and past London could be imagined and spoken.  I also saw these metropolitan planning arguments as innately questions linked to colonial pasts, postcolonial presents and neo-colonial aspirations. I saw urban change in the Londonof the 1990s through a lens shaped by what I had learnt through researching indigenous land rights struggles.  Postcolonial theory, belatedly, helped me make sense of this filter.

The big change in research direction for me has come with the high-rise project. And I think the extent of this change has also accounted for some of my own slowness in terms of output. By the end of the 1990s I had gotten a little tired of the postcolonial research agenda. Basically, it was the emphasis on identity questions that I had begun to tire of – although I do not think these questions are tired in and of themselves: they are central and important questions with real consequences in terms of rights and resources. But I felt I had said what I could say at that point in time.

I began to pursue the project of making that change of direction in a collaboration with the architect Stephen Cairns, who was also then at University of Melbourne. This was the beginning of the high-rise project. After many failed attempts to get ARC funding for this project we decided that perhaps it (and we) might have new life in the UK. And this was partly the motivation for moving from Melbourne to Edinburgh. And it paid off. Our first application to the AHRC was successful and we started in on the collaboration with Ignaz Strebel, who came on to the project as the Postdoc Researcher.

The high-rise project, as described above, has a postcolonial imagination at its heart. How did an instrument of modernization replicate and differentiate, and what work did this differentiation do with respect to relations of power, subjectivity and world building (and unbuilding)? But in the working through of this project so much more has come to view, and I have had to come to know so much more about other social theoretical fields. Most notably, I had to understand how architecture, housing studies and STS approached such things as high-rises. It is only now that I feel ready to take this reading back to the postcolonial heart of the project.

Usefully for me this moment of wider reflection and writing up of the project has coincided with another relocation. I have recently moved to Singapore where, in the first instance, I am on research leave. It will be invaluable to be in this context to write-up the main outputs of this project, for I am constantly reminded of the fact of alternative modernities and modernisms.

DC: What do you hope to bring to and take from your work with Society and Space?

JJ: Working as a co-editor on Environment and Planning D: Society and Space is a great honour and challenge. I love writing and ideas so being closely involved in the editing process for such an important journal is very exciting.

This is a journal that has as its core business explicating and theorising the relationship between space and society. As I am a Human Geographer I view that relationship as core to all my efforts, and I hope my geographical expertise and passion, as well as my familiarity with Geography and Geographers, will matter. I hope that it ensures that geographical contributions remain central to S&S, and that S&S remains central to the discipline’s sense of itself.

As we know, Geography is not the only discipline to focus on the society and space relationship and non-Geographers from various disciplines have important and meaningful things to contribute to this subject, as the journal has understood from its inception. I am delighted to be part of a team that nurtures such a multi-disciplinary forum and actively seeks to expand the constituency of S&S. I am pleased to be part of the effort that ensures that S&S is THE place to publish for any scholar worrying away at the complexities of the society-space relationship.

Very banally I also hope to be able to bring my other expertise – in  urban studies, architecture, STS and postcolonial theory ­– to the editorial group. And, more minorly still, I am a compulsive close reader, as my grad students will testify. So I hope my forensic eye for consistency of argument and purpose is useful. I am very interested in academic papers that read as plausible. This might be about the logic of argument or it might be about evidence.

I also hope I can bring some more general qualities more associated with my own ethos of research and research reporting through academic writing.  EPD: S seeks to be “philosophically sophisticated, practically relevant, and to concretely theorise a range of contemporary, historical, political and cultural contexts”. I like this aspect of S&S. I am all for writing that makes a difference, and especially writing that leaves the legacy making us not simply know more about here or there or now and then, but to think differently. That’s what theory and philosophy do: they are not simply tools (although they are also that), they demand and produce thought. That said, such a remit can result in papers that are difficult, complex, and use concepts and terms that are unfamiliar. How one writes when one is engaged in such a project really matters. This is especially so in a journal which is read across disciplines and cannot and should not depend on in-house, disciplinary knowledges and jargon. I am an advocate of generous writing. Any writing, no matter how big or important its message, should be generous and aim towards demystification. I am not especially interested in, or tolerant of, writing that is pretentious, self-serving, or about scoring points by denigrating others. I like passionate writing, but I also think it is possible to be passionate and polite. Politeness is, at the heart of it, about respect.

DC: What are your initial impressions after six months?

JJ: Firstly, I have a new-found respect for Stuart’s editorial on the hidden economy of journal publishing. At the time I thought it was a great piece, but now I feel its politics in a way that simply was not possible on the other side of the publishing machine. I am in awe, and intensely grateful, to our colleagues who offer rigorous and fulsome reviews of papers for no recompense. I am amazed at how clever and hard-working my colleagues are who submit papers toS&S. Feeling this politics – having to ask people to referee, having to ask authors to revise, having to reject papers that are good in themselves but not for us – makes me realise the great intellectual and moral responsibility editors of a journal like this have.

I also like the ethos of all of us seeing all emails related to all papers. It is an email nightmare, but it is fantastic regulator of consistency, and guarantor of transparency.

My key impression is that this is going to be a lot of work, a great learning experience and a meaningful service to my professional community.

DC: Thanks for sharing these thoughts Jane!

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Deborah Cowen is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2008). She is a former co-editor and current editorial board member of Society and Space.