This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”


See Deborah Cowen’s other contributions to the Society & Space Open Site here: On Murder and Passing, On the High-Rise and Society and Space, and Anti-Blackness and Urban Geopolitical Economy, as well as a review of her book The Deadly Life of Logistics

Like many of the world’s large cities, Tkaronto/Toronto is constituted by deepening divides. [1] The homeless population is growing and dying. The housing market is booming and displacing. The city is accumulating and concentrating wealth and other toxins. While often represented through a Jane Jacobsian lens of humble multicultural livability, there is a large body of research documenting another Toronto story; a settler colonial city of sprawling borders and violent social ordering that produces the kind of systemic premature death that Ruthie Gilmore has helped us to know as racism. Sandy Hudson, of Black Lives Matter—Toronto, and Rinaldo Walcott insist that when it comes to anti-Black racism, knowledge is abundant but meaningful action is in painfully short supply. Indeed, reports and official commissions that document the problem have been piling up for decades.

If pervasive injustice is not a question but a starting place, then we are left with a more particular set of questions about how this violence is lived. Here, I want to offer some preliminary thoughts at a turbulent time for ways we might relate to divides differently. Specifically, I want to consider the reproduction of division by questioning its infrastructure. I follow Martin Coward in seeing the city as constituted by infrastructure, but I am particularly interested in the infrastructures that sustain divided lives. This includes things like roads and rails—the explicitly material forms of infrastructure that have long histories of connecting and dividing peoples, but it also includes the legal infrastructures that give rule its permission, and the affective ones that forge and regulate intimacy and collectivity. Whether it’s a pipeline or a police force, infrastructure is at once social and technical, defined not simply by its materiality but in the way it underpins the motion of social re/production. I look to a beautifully strange book about the city divided, one where two completely different urban worlds occupy the same space. China Mieville’s fantastical The City and The City offers a portrait of the power of infrastructure in sustaining dis/connection.

How do people know the city’s deepening divides in their everyday intimacies and their socialized and systemic routine? How do people describe their shape, their feel, their vitality, and vulnerability? How are cartographic practices implicated in the reproduction of the status quo, and also perhaps its transformation? Among the diverse and competing ways of describing and representing Toronto’s divides, David Hulchanski’s ‘Three Cities’ have captured public imaginaries. His maps highlight the deepening income inequality in Toronto according to residential location and alert us to the polarization of the city’s wealth, the growth of concentrated poverty, the gentrification of large swaths of the urban fabric, the racialization of suburban space, and the underservicing of poor and working-class neighborhoods by transit and other services.

And yet, for all its usefulness, there are limits to what this kind of cartography can do. It cannot tell us about how people live deepening class and race divides. How we become divided, or how people reproduce, contest, and transform those divides. For all the things it gives, this kind of mapping can fix difference in discrete spaces, flattening relations of power that are far more ‘geometric’ in the sense that Doreen Massey described. Mapping in this way can have the effect of objectifying difference; constituting it as achieved through separation without making visible intimate and violent relation. In other words, this map needs others. The people that live the ‘three cities’ leave the house and go to work, go to school, go shopping, or go into institutions; they grow up, are disciplined, policed, govern themselves. They lead complex lives outside their income level and home address, that are unwieldy but not unknowable. What kinds of cartographies are required to acknowledge how divides surround us, move with and through us?

A geometric vision of the city that maps divides, not only in incomes and residential location but in bodies, language, conduct, laws, institutions, and across the very material spaces of the city, is on offer elsewhere. China Mieville’s The City & The City unfolds in two cities that occupy the very same space. Beszel is a decaying city, poorer, more traditional and less secular than Ul Qoma, the more prosperous city of modern architecture and skyscrapers and fashion. These two cities share a physical space, but not a social or juridical one. Residents of either city in fact do not see each other. This unseeing is not a natural or automatic fact but a practice that is learned and aggressively policed. Children must be instructed in it, and are given some carceral grace until they get it right. Even in well-trained adults, unseeing sometimes fails, and if unauthorized and more than momentary, constitutes a grave illegality. The failure to unsee constitutes ‘Breach’ and comes with the cost of being disappeared.

The story of The City and the City unfolds through a murder investigation that explicitly loops Toronto into the scene. A murder in one of the two cities, the body discovered in the other, begs the question of their simultaneity and separation. The victim is a PhD student—part of a team from Toronto doing archeology on The City & The City before it was cleaved, or separated as such.

As I read this fascinating book I thought of these two radically different places in the same space—Beszel and Ul Qoma—in relation to the divided lives of Toronto. I reflected on what the book calls ‘Grosstopicality’—the status of being in the same place in absolute space, but in entirely different urban worlds. Despite the fantastic premise, the map seemed to fit the city I call home. What could seem strange or impossible—two cities in one place—resonated with the experience of ‘different cities’ lived by oppressor and oppressed. Grosstopicality flags the ways that settler laws and lives are violently mapped on top of Indigenous ones, and perhaps the ways that racial capitalism creates radically different realities of urban life for differently racialized people.

I also couldn’t help but think of the long history of anti-colonial theorizing of the doubling of lived experience, of subjectivity, and of space in the context of oppression, racism, and colonial rule. I thought about Fanon’s (1952) Black Skin, White Masks, and then of Coulthard’s (2014) Red Skin, White Masks. I reflected on the experience of seeing and being seen in incongruous ways that dehumanize the reality of the oppressed. The City and The City lured me back to Dubois’ (1903) ‘Souls of Black Folks’, where he describes ‘double consciousness’ as:

this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Dubois is clear that double consciousness is a capacity and resource for survival, but it can also be a violent experience for the oppressed and colonized. This is particularly the case when the double consciousness of the oppressed is paired with the refusal of multiplicity and the assertion of singular universal reality on the part of the oppressor. We might call this drive to universalize the urban world of the oppressor or the mainstream, white supremacy. Marc Black writes, “When double consciousness is unilateral, when it is experienced only by the oppressed, double consciousness is unhealthy.” And yet, Black also suggests that, “when whites and colonists develop their own abilities to see their racial positions from the perspectives of people of color, then this multilateral double consciousness can enable a form of critical interracial dialogue.” This promise relies on seeing something of the life of the other. At the very least that it exists.

The possibility of transgressing the uneven refusal of ‘double consciousness’ begs the question of how residents of The City & The City (and this city) can come to live in these strange ways that do not see the lives of the others all around them. If the divide between urban worlds in a common geography is not natural in the novel, if it has a history that is both real and constructed, then how is it produced, governed, challenged, or transgressed? How is division created and ordered in these different cities that occupy the same space? The novel answers with a complex map of infrastructure.

Rather than segregated in fixed space, radically different experiences of city life are woven through each other, produced in relation, co-constituted. They are not simply intersecting, as if split or divided, but to use the book’s language, they are crosshatched. Part of the brilliance of the book is in the nuanced ways it reveals the complex workings of divides, and the myriad and manufactured sources of their reproduction through physical and social infrastructure. It is this complexity and materiality that make the bizarre premise of The City & The City seem so strangely normal.

Transportation infrastructures are key. Rail lines, for instance divide the cities but also connect them. Mieville writes, “there is a short stretch in the north of Beszel where the tracks themselves hatch with and serve also as Ul Qoman tracks; and the miles of north-seeking railroads leading out of both city-states, joining us to our northern neighbours through the mountain gash, are also shared, to our borders, where they become single line in existential legality as well as mere metal fact: up to those national edges, the track was two juridical railroads.” Roads too are complicated spaces division and sometimes traumatic connection—the most common occasion for breach is traffic accidents, when vehicles collide in the same physical location but in different cities.

The novel emphasizes education. Residents are taught to govern themselves at an early age and through the intimacy of the senses. What we see, and don’t, smell, and don’t. Who we engage, or pass by. As Mieville (66) writes, “the early years of a Besz (and presumably an Ul Qoman) child are intense learnings of cues. We pick up styles of clothing, permissible colours, ways of walking and holding oneself, very fast. Before we were eight or so most of us could be trusted not to breach embarrassingly and illegally…” Who is us and who is them becomes an automated infrastructure of perception.

Housing infrastructures not only segregate, keeping people in or out of different cities, but the political economy of urban redevelopment and specifically condo construction destroy local archeology, threatening memory of these cities ‘pre-cleavage’, and so also access to the imaginative infrastructures of change. Legal infrastructures underpin this complex ordering of space, and perception. With both cities in the same space – a resident of one city can, “travel to the space they had minutes earlier occupied, though in a new juridic realm.” (70) The architecture of law is what enables this curious choreography of dis/connection.

And of course, carceral, border and policing infrastructures are key. With the incongruous multiplication of the city comes the necessity of borders and so too policing and carcerality. And indeed, The City and the City (the novel and the cities) are centered in security. Police patrol the multidimensional borders between the cities, and between each city and the outside world. The lead character explains that the borders between were “tight.” He explains the complex work of policing in the context of the two cities, “Where the desperate newcomers hit crosshatched patches of shore the unwritten agreement was that they were in the city of whichever border control met them, and thus incarcerated them in the coastal camps, first” (56). Infrastructure holds The City & The City together, but precisely in ways that craft division and create the invisibility of the other. “Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary between Beszel and Ul Qoma had to observe it most carefully” (52).

In the novel, ‘Breach’ is an unsanctioned crossing between the two cities, and a most serious crime. ‘Breach’ is invoked as noun and verb, and also names the mysterious and absolute authority that underpins the architecture of doubled urban worlds. Breach is a crossing that does not rely on physical movement, but on whole new modes of both seeing and relating. Breach is in fact an unseeing of unseeing. It is in the political potential and material reality of Breach as the unseeing of unseeing where I want to conclude this reflection.

If the reproduction of The City and the City (and this city) takes shape through infrastructure, then Breach emerges through disruption. We might see this unseeing of unseeing in this city. In Toronto, movements and communities are creating Breach—unsanctioned disruptions to the circulation of racial capitalism and colonialism—which demand that different voices, bodies and urban realities are attended to. Indigenous artists and organizers challenge settler educational infrastructures that refuse to teach the most basic facts about our obligations to each other and the land. The Ogimaa Mikana Project inserts bold invitations on billboards to settlers to unlearn colonial narratives of extinguishment and to learn the treaties—like the Dish With One Spoon and the Two-Row Wampum – that govern this place. Indigenous people have also undertaken blockades of rail lines in Toronto to breach the unseeing of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily effective in creating Breach by disrupting schools and streets, the circulation of bodies and homonormativities, and the machinations of city government. They have organized school walkouts to demand the removal of police from education infrastructure, they have halted millions of marchers at the city’s pride parade to demand the removal of state security, they have occupied police headquarters to demand an end to the killing of Black people. BLM has forged solidarities with Idle No More—collaborating in the disruption of the infrastructures of ongoing settler colonial dispossession through the occupation of INAC offices. More recently, residents of the Parkdale neighborhood initiated a collective rent strike to disrupt the operation of gentrification in housing infrastructures. Migrant rights organizers like No One is Illegal have repeatedly disrupted the operations of border infrastructures through protest at hidden detention facilities. Earlier this year, the Toronto Standing Rock Syllabus Group worked to disrupt the infrastructures of our imaginaries through making visible the multiple ties between this city and that crisis, for instance through financial flows and institutions, and the power of Toronto in global extraction.

Through a seemingly impossible scenario, The City and The City offers insight and clarity for the divided city. Crucially, it allows us to see the tremendous labor invested in systems (of thought, of discipline, of traffic control, of legal order, of power supply, etc) that reproduce divides and their unseeing. But perhaps even more importantly, the book positions the reader in the Breach, and so is structured by the possibilities of unseeing unseeing. What happens when unseeing is unseen? Breach constitutes an alternative cartography—a map of dispersed but precise infrastructures as targets for transformation.

 

Notes

[1] These reflections are prompted by an invitation to participate in the opening panel of the 2017 CAG at York University, “A Just and Sustainable Toronto?” I am grateful to Steve Tufts and the organizers for the invitation and my co-panelists Deborah McGregor, Rinaldo Walcott, Linda Peake, Miriam Diamond and Roger Keil for sharing space.

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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.