What is the Urban? Registers of a World Interior – Spring Symposium

What is the Urban? Registers of a World Interior
Iowa State University, Center for Excellence in Arts and Humanities (CEAH) Symposium
April 4-5, 2016
Full details and free registration at 

The urban, long a popular topic of inquiry, has become an unavoidable condition for contemporary life. For many disciplines, it has become a primary locus of research. Disciplines as varied as sociology, anthropology, geography, literature, art, design, economics, history and politics increasingly find themselves in contact with and shaped by the urban. And as more and more spaces of the world are urbanized, the ubiquity of this category as a site of scholarly research could be said to rest on the urgency we face in accommodating ourselves to its contradictions, imposed forms of violence, and the environmental fallout it has unleashed. From all scales, we encounter the urban, too: popularized notions like the anthropocene shed light on this category just as much as the problem of uneven development that characterizes our everyday experiences in its spaces. Yet for as much as it has opened itself to scholarly research, there is oddly scant reflection on the category itself. Despite its irrefutable complexity, its use is often irrefutably reductive: it appears as a background condition, as much for life itself as for the many discourses that attempt to describe it. Always at the disposal of myriad forms of knowledge, it is the unquestioned specification for the definition of other problems. The urban, it seems, is a given.

This symposium opens with a simple yet perplexing question: what is the urban? It brings together a range of internationally renowned scholars in an effort less to provide answers to this question than to frame a problem that has yet to be fully constituted. What language do we need to speak about the urban? What spaces and politics does it produce? Does the urban have a history of its own? An ontological specificity? By simply addressing the urban as a problem in and of itself, the symposium aims to open radically new apertures toward a world increasingly viewed through its endlessly urbanized space.

Emerging philosophical, theoretical and conceptual apparatuses may be necessary to repose the urban outside of its traditional spatial and ontological frameworks. Considering recent work in the humanities, what happens when we consider the urban to be a political ecology in its own right—a dense, complex, relational entanglement of human and non-human natures, embodied energies and materialities? What political forms and technologies does its spatial organization produce? Likewise, through juridico-political histories, the urban may begin to appear as a spatio-political order on par with a historical figure like territory, raising genealogical questions as to its emergence and formation. Can discourses on circulation, logistics and network theory be marshaled to confront the trans-scalar qualities that we observe in a spatial order visible at once at the planetary and the bodily scales? What kind of spatial theories can reconcile the geopolitical with the biopolitical?

In this regard, Peter Sloterdijk’s recent provocations around the notion of ‘world interior’ may shed crucial light on the question of the urban. The ‘world interior’ for Sloterdijk operates as a metaphor to describe the end result of a long history of globalization, characterized by an overarching aversion to risk developed over centuries of plunderous oceanic crossing. ‘Interiorization’ for him stands as a tendency whose effect today is marked by sprawling insurance policies, unchecked security measures and a techno-media power structure whose effort to totally annihilate risk comes through endless structures and technologies of enclosure. The space of the world interior, akin to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace (1851), is an interior so vast as to permit the fantasy that there is no outside. Moving from paradigm to ontology, how can such a notion of a ‘world-interior’ be useful for unfolding relations between the material, legal, social, political, architectural and phenomenological conditions of the urban today? How can it help to describe new socio-spatial ontologies of this category that transgress the familiar urban/rural, center/periphery, and even global south/north divides? What other emerging concepts and motifs can help capture the elusive yet omnipresent condition of the urban?



James C. Scott, Yale University

Max Viatori, Iowa State University

Charles Rice, University of Technology Sydney

Design Earth (Rania Ghosn/El Hadi Jazairy), MIT/University of Michigan

Jane Rongerude, Iowa State University

Ayala Levin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Marwan Ghandour, Iowa State University

Nikos Katsikis, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Albert Pope, Rice University

Ross Exo Adams, Iowa State University

AbdouMaliq Simone, Max Planck Institute/Goldsmiths College

Michael Bailey, Iowa State University

Alice Randall, Vanderbilt University

Kenny Cupers, University of Basel

Barbara Ching, Iowa State University

Antonio Petrov, University of Texas at San Antonio