Assemblage Urbanism and the Challenges of Critical Urban Theory

Neil Brenner, David J. Madden and David Wachsmuth, “Assemblage urbanism and the challenges of critical urban theory,” CITY, 15, 2, 2011, 225-240.

Against the background of contemporary worldwide transformations of urbanizing spaces, this paper evaluates recent efforts to mobilize the concept of “assemblage” as the foundation for contemporary critical urban theory, with particular attention to a recent paper by McFarlane (2011). We argue that there is no single “assemblage urbanism,” and therefore no coherence to arguing for or against the concept in general. Instead, we distinguish between three articulations between urban political economy and assemblage thought. While empirical and methodological applications of assemblage analysis have generated productive insights in various strands of urban studies by building on political economy, we suggest that the ontological application favored by many assemblage urbanists contains significant drawbacks. In explicitly rejecting concepts of structure in favor of a naïve objectivism, it deprives itself of a key explanatory tool for understanding the sociospatial “context of contexts” in which urban spaces and locally embedded social forces are positioned. Relatedly, such approaches do not adequately grasp the ways in which contemporary urbanization continues to be shaped and contested through the contradictory, hierarchical social relations and institutional forms of capitalism. Finally, the normative foundations of such approaches are based upon a decontextualized standpoint rather than an immanent, reflexive critique of actually existing social relations and institutional arrangements. These considerations suggest that assemblage-based approaches can most effectively contribute to critical urban theory when they are linked to theories, concepts, methods and research agendas derived from a reinvigorated geopolitical economy.

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