Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

Cities Under Siege is extensively footnoted – one might say too extensively, as Graham’s own thoughts and writings tend to disappear into the morass of impenetrable academic and philosophical gobbledy-gook. The entire book averages almost four footnotes a page (1,386 footnotes in 385 pages), but few are explanatory, and few back up original thought. Instead, he seems to need these references to provide him with the very phrasing of the book – and most of them don’t deserve any reproduction. Why is this Chris Hedges sentence worth reprinting?

[The new wars] take the form of mediatized mechanisms and are ordered as massive intrusions into visual culture, which are conflated with, and substitute for, the actual materiality and practices of the public sphere.

Graham has a puzzling attachments to all the nonsense phrases that warn of an Orwellian future ahead – but one wonders if any of his sources have read “Politics and the English Language.” Far more than is necessary, Graham draws on Foucault and the ‘Manichaean Worlds’ of American military thought to produce such tongue-twisting sentences as:

We must see to it that socialized infrastructure, housing, and urbanism once again become axiomatic within a resurgent conception of Keynesian state politics, organized through multiple scales of intervention to match the contexts of accelerating globalization.

And yet his next proscription is simply stated: “neoliberal economics must go – in toto” [emphasis his]. He can be concise and to the point when he wants, but unfortunately those moments are far and few between.

Obviously, the book has a political bent, and usually I don’t mind these kinds of things. I agree with much of what he’s saying even if I might disagree with some of the particulars on Israel-Palestine or stateside urban training centers. But when Graham’s agenda starts to degrade his language to a point beyond all comprehension, clearly something has gone awry.

The other major objection I have is to the overwhelming focus on New York and London as representative of all cities. Virtually none of the other major cities are acknowledged – Paris, Moscow, and Tokyo get a handful of mentions, there are offhand references to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Madrid train bombings and the Olympic Games in Beijing, and Boston, Chicago, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Toronto are all entirely and conspicuously absent from the index. New York and London are crucial, important, Alpha++ level world cities – but there are so many others important in their own rights and with developments of their own worth exploring in more depth. For countries as small as they are, the few cities in Israel-Palestine are paid huge amounts of attention, to the detriment of all others across the world.

These shortcomings (which are in reality quite superficial) are all the more problematic because Graham really drawing some fascinating conclusions. The securitization of the city, the surveillance infrastructure created for and left by major world events (Olympics, G20 and WTO meetings, etc.), the convergence of law enforcement and paramilitarization – these are all important, subtle, and hugely consequential developments in cities around the world. They’re even more troubling when perpetrated against the citizenry that elected a ruling body, but sadly it is left to others like Geoff Manaugh to really unpack these concepts fully.

The sheer scale and number of urban training centers both in the United States and around the world came as a shock to me. But like many of the issues Graham raises, I don’t necessarily find their existence cause for alarm. As Richard Norton says, cities will be the battlefields of the future – wouldn’t it make sense to prepare for that? If anything, recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan – particularly Afghanistan – are a break from what would be considered a normal battlespace elsewhere in the world.

I was less concerned with what Graham considers the latent indoctrination of youths into a militaristic culture through video games and other media violence. It’s a claim that’s been tossed around for quite some time, but I still just don’t buy it. The actual convergence of Playstation controllers and military hardware is more interesting to me; unlike Graham I’m not terrified by it (wary, perhaps). Then again, I like playing video games and watching violent television, so I’m coming to that issue with a bias. The nexus of news manufacturing, ‘shady’ agendas, corporate interests, and privatized military operations is nothing new, but Graham does trace their contours well, even if reading “military-industrial-media-entertainment network” gets tiresome very quickly.

That, I suppose, is really the takeaway from Cities Under Siege. If you can stomach and muddle through the language, quote after quote, and at times sheer pompousness, you’ll be able to glean some fascinating new insight into cultural attitudes towards the city. But I fear that for many, the book will prove too pretentious to finish. If you have a month to spare, dive right in.

Buy Cities Under Siege at Amazon.com.

its generalizations

One thought on “Cities Under Siege: A Review

  1. Saw this at my local bookstore yesterday. Walked away from it hoping I wasn’t missing anything good, but whenever a review mentions a book’s “pompousness” in the last paragraph, I’m pretty sure I’d never actually finish it. Thanks for the review!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s