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"An agit-prop classic" — reviews of Cities Under Siege

Decca Muldowney27 January 2012

Writing in the Glasgow Herald, Alastair Mabbott argues that Stephen Graham's Cities Under Siege has "the potential to be an agit-prop classic," but laments the fact that it is not geared towards a more "general" audience. Linking Graham's discussion of the way that "'military dreams of high-tech omniscience' have lodged firmly in the civilian sphere," to the recent crack down on the Occupy movement, Mabbott writes that, "there couldn't have been a more timely moment for publication."

In a considered response to Graham's book, Mabbott advises us not to, "rush to the window to see what's changed" outside, as we are "unlikely to spot the difference straight away": our cities are gradually transforming, being "reshaped for military convenience." The tactics learned in Iraq and Afghanistan have come full circle and are now being applied to cities at home. Mabbott points out that, "after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the US Army talked of reclaiming New Orleans from 'insurgents.'" He goes on to elucidate Grahams "dystopian vision," suggesting that,

If Orwell's vision of a boot stamping on a human face sounded too melodramatic a vision of the future for you, then try to imagine the city you live in functioning like an airport, an image of all-too-convincing banality.

Jeff Haydon, reviewing Cities Under Siege for Review31, draws on his own experiences of living in downtown Toronto during the G20 summit in the summer of 2010. "Myriad CCTV cameras were erected," he writes, "additional police were imported from multiple municipalities close to the city, and a barrier was established around the Convention Centre that would protect the leaders of nations from the Great Unwashed." The final result was a "new Toronto" in which "the condition of living became a process of negotiation and where attempts were made to avoid any act that would qualify as 'conspicuous.'" 

However, in light of Graham's book, Haydon dubs the security trends around the G20 summit relatively "mundane." This is due to Graham's

Overwhelming amount of research and carefully considered theoretical applications to linked trends in security and the production of the visible citizen...Graham's uncovering of the mechanisms being developed and the general approach to the control of urban populations...opens up the question of how the contemporary condition of urbanity functions on political and sociopolitical levels.

For Haydon explaining the introduction of military practice into urban areas at home is not simply a case of restating Focault's argument in Society Must Be Defended, that as

colonial powers...transplanted their values and governing practices to the cultures they invaded, newly developed techniques of control that were the result of colonial practices would often be carried back to the domestic sphere.

 Instead Haydon argues that,

the degree to which a regime of control is transferable from one theatre of conflict to another now seems to come down to the approach a dominant power structure takes toward its own population. Going back to the G20, the shift I noticed personally in the way an area feels, or in how I related to my surroundings, was substantial. The ease with which practices that would have been refined in the construction of the 'green zone' in Baghdad were transferred to an alternate city was unnerving.

In light of military procedures becoming "available to virtually every police force on the planet," Haydon poses several questions;

in what sense are cities things that still belong to those who live in them? Is a city a place that belongs to its citizens or is it an organism that is forever under surveillance, under inspection for fear of a disease that might be rotting it out from the core?

Cities Under Siege, he argues, answers these questions with a "breathtaking assemblage of research coupled with a reasoned, considered take on the likely direction of the mechanisms of control that are becoming more and more commonplace." As a result he deems the book a "text that should be compulsory reading for anyone planning to research the contemporary condition of urbanity.

Visit Review31 to read the review in full.



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