An Unoccupied and Unoccupiable Place

“Ein unbesetzter und unbesetzbarer Ort” by Nikolai Roskamm
Translated by Manuela Kölke

In La Revolution urbaine, a founding text of critical urban research, Henri Lefebvre describes the city as a “pseudo-concept” that no longer corresponds to “any societal object” (1990, 65). In the mid-1980s, Jürgen Habermas, in his essay “Modern and Postmodern Architecture” asks the question, whether the concept of the city is not outdated because it no longer keeps pace with the constant change of the urban form of life (1985, 24). At about the same time, the urban sociologist Peter Saunders speaks of the “sociological irrelevancy” of the city and its traditional determining factors (1987, 17, similarly Häußermann / Siebel 1978). The planning theorist John Friedmann formulates at the beginning of the millennium succinctly: “The city is dead” (2002, XI). Quite recently, Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid – two prominent representatives of the critical urban studies – are writing in a programmatic text about their theory of planetary urbanization: “The category of the ‚city’ has today become obsolete as an analytical social science tool” (2014, 162).

The subject of my text is precisely this useless division, this inoperable and traditional concept of the city.

My approach is based on the following considerations: On the one hand, the diagnoses of Lefebvre, Habermas, Saunders, Friedmann, Brenner, and Schmid seem to be quite convincing: The city is a blurred, overtly, irrelevant, and often frighteningly empty concept. On the other hand, it is not a viable option to stop talking about the city and simply give up the term. And this is, because the city is omnipresent in many debates: as a lifestyle, as a utopia, as a vision of horror, as a company, as a material reality (whatever that may be). My proposal is therefore to do conceptual work. What I would like to do is to examine and challenge the conceptual concept of the city. For this reason, I do not focus on the empirical, directly observable urban phenomena, but I turn to the suspended sediments of the treatises and narratives of urbanism. I am less concerned with the social-scientific front view of the city, its numerical and measurable features, its statistics, its rankings-, but rather with the “unsightly socio-theoretical backside” (Marchart 2013, 362) of the notion – knowing that its front and reverse side are directly and inseparably connected. My thesis of the unoccupied city has the aim of shifting the concept of the city from the social-scientific to a social-theoretical level, from the level of the social, the empirical, and the particular to the level of political, theoretical, and total. My approach is to submit the domains of knowledge associated with the city and the urban to a socio-theoretical (socio-philosophical, socio-ontological) investigation in order to, first, look for the foundations and justifications of the urbanistic field, second, to identify the conditions and conditioning of a critical theory of the city, and, finally, to think, through this identification, the renewal of such a theory.

What is the situation to begin with, what is the context, how can the discourse be described, in which I intervene with my text? On the one hand, there is the narrative of the good and successful city, which today dominates the debates of urban politics and the orthodox urban sciences. City, says Edward Glaeser in his bestseller Triumph of the City (2011), makes richer, greener, healthier, smarter and happier. [1] In the introduction to the “Vision of the ‘Frauenhofer Morgenstadt’,” a research group of industry and science, it is postulated that “our cities as central spaces in our society” play the decisive role on the “way to the future”.[2] A large number of contributions from the vicinity of such a neo-positivist urbanism tell the introductory story that only recently more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and that at a certain point in time a certain percentage mark will be exceeded. From these figures, the relevance of the city is derived, in order to then offer a mostly technically centric problem-solving perspective. The “City of the Future,” as it is formulated with a project call with the same name, is determined by “new technologies, technological (sub-)systems, and urban services” and is characterized by the “highest resource efficiency” coupled with high attractiveness for residents and businesses.”[3] “City” is/should be (a distinction that is hardly made in this context): sustainable, innovative and resilient. Such an approach looks positively forward. It always identifies opportunities and never problems. It recounts the city and the urban preferably with figures. It is almost infatuated with creating rankings (the most popular cities, cities with the best investment climate, etc.), setting up competitiveness and location factors as the basic pillars, and relies on the creative individual, who in the pursuit of his happiness abruptly sudden and unavoidably also shapes the city.[4]

On the other hand, there is critical urban research with its analyzes (see Belina/Naumann/Strüver 2014, Brenner/Marcuse/Mayer 2012, Parker 2011, Peck 2010, Brenner 2009). Here, the just described triumphal city concept is rewritten and criticized given the thesis of the neoliberal city. Urban politics of the neoliberal city, according to the diagnosis in the critical urban studies, is primarily to create optimal conditions for the market rather than attempting – as perhaps in concerns of former urbanism – to reduce or even eliminate social inequalities. In fact, in neo-liberal concepts of the city, free competition is imposed to an unquestioned and unquestionable myth, a necessity for which there is no alternative. Many discourses in urban administration, politics and the urban sciences have devoted themselves to such thinking in recent decades (the thesis that there have also been other times is also addressed in my text). Products such as the new public management, in which municipal urban policy and urban infrastructures are economically “optimized” (see Lebuhn 2008, 80 f.), are just as much a part of the neoliberal city as the awarding of urban properties according to purely financial considerations, the privatization of public goods and structures (one of the main fields of activity of urban politics since the 1990s) and the redefinition of teaching content in the urban sciences in the direction of city marketing and city management. Thereby, an economized approach is so deeply embedded in the ways of thinking and the use of language – not infrequently about discourses such as the creative city and the sustainable city – that current contributions in the urban field are often permeated by a language that breathes and reproduces the spirit of the market and the competition. The latest course of study at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, for example, is advertised with a slogan (or is it even called like this?): “Manage your city, master your future.”[5] That is also the neoliberal city.

In addition to the neoliberal city, for some time now, the second field of explanation can be found in critical urban research: the thesis of the post-political city. This thesis refers to the field of political theory and political philosophy as well as to therein established a distinction between “the political” and “politics” – a distinction that will, here and there, play a role in the further development of my text. The political is here understood as an ontological category, which is associated with terms such as dislocation, disturbance, and resistance. This political is accompanied by politics: the real apparatus of politics and its realpolitik (e.g., the federal, state, and local politics, the political parties, etc.). The postpolitical, a concept introduced to the discourse by Slavoj Zizek in reference to Jacques Ranciere, is a politics that is deprived of the political. Deprived for the reason that it is undertaken in a pacified area under the general acceptance of a compromise and does not take fundamental alternatives into account any longer (see Michel/Roskamm 2015).

In some recent contributions to critical urban research, the theses of neoliberal and postpolitical cities are brought together. The result of such a synthesis is the diagnosis that the neoliberal city itself is the post-political city. The belief in market forces and competition, this is how this postulate is justified, has become so dominant in the discourses of the neoliberal city that urban policy decisions can only be conceived within the space created with such an absolute setting (from which the political is excluded). It triggers the urban postpolitical mode. Such a state, according to analysis, has become the immanent logic of the city in the late capitalist post-Fordist era (see Swyngedouw, 2013). In the context of these debates of critical urban research, I situate my approach to the unoccupied city. The thesis of the collapse of the neoliberal and the post-political city determines the point from which I would like to start with my reflections – my field is that of contemporary critical urbanism. Starting from something, however, is also a form of “moving away,” which in my case means that I will not remain in the urban field (and also in the field of critical urban research), but will move away from it. On the one hand, because it is these fields themselves, which I would like to observe, and such observation from the outside, beyond established research tracks, may be more successful. On the other hand, moving away from the point of departure is necessary because the neoliberal city and its criticism have a common feature: both use the same concept of a city. Urbanism and critical urban research, according to my thesis, are operating not only in the same field, but they also negotiate the same categories. In both cases – explicitly or implicitly – a concept of the city is employed, in which the urban is defined as an empirically determined, quantitatively accessible and particular entity, as a structural-spatial substratum of the social, material and economic. Such a concept of the city is at home in neoliberal urban politics and urban planning, as well as in critical urban research. For this reason, the empirical social-scientific concept of the city, when used in the context of critical urban research, is, in my view, only to a limited extent able to counteract neoliberal thinking with something on its own. What I would like to suggest with my text, is to determine the concept of the city and its context (the urbanistic field) as the object of a socio-theoretical investigation, to make both (object and field) more resistant to the neoliberal attempts at appropriation.

In the empirical urban sciences (in both orthodox and explicitly critical orientations) such an approach is not necessarily popular. There, socio-theoretic interventions are usually regarded as superfluous, and often also as annoying, and disturbing. Such an analysis is probably not entirely wrong, at least in part. In fact, the goal of socio-theoretical criticism is to question and challenge the socio-scientific standard operation (to disturb it and to become annoying), not least with regard to its empirical focus. In the discussions between critical urban research and urban assemblage research, this confrontation can currently be studied well.[6] As a defense against such and other philosophical disturbing maneuvers, it is often suggested that the social sciences had long since and completely deliberately passed away from any metaphysical thinking, and therefore saw little sense and use in socio-theoretical speculations.

This argument, however, conceals the fact that any approach (whether theoretical or empirical) is based on a worldview (philosophy, ideology, ontology), even if it is not addressed (which is usually the case). A little further on is the consideration that the empirically based sciences, in particular, have the repression of their foundation (the underlying ontology/ideology) as the basis of their foundation. This argument leads to postfoundationalist thinking and thus to the core consideration of my text. Generally speaking, postfoundationalism stands for the view that ultimate foundations in the last instance are not possible. The premise of such an approach is that there is no foundation on which anything else is built: no god, no biological law or genetic code, no market and no production conditions that necessarily determine the course of things. Postfoundationalism does not assert that all foundations dissolve into air, but that they mutate into abysses, which are permanently beset by a “dimension of absence and contingency” (Laclau 2012, 119). For this reason, there is also a narrative of the course of history in postfoundationalist thinking. The course of history, according to the thesis, is determined by contingent and conflicting forces. Contingent means that all social things and processes could be fundamentally different, that nothing is (pre-) determined in itself and from the outset. Such an assertion of contingency, in turn, reproduces the thesis of the non-existence of ultimate foundations. Therefore, because they are fundamentally contingent, all social processes are also conflictual. Since anything and everything could be different, there are alternatives. The validity of these alternatives is disputed. If something would be valid in itself, it would no longer be necessary to fight for its validity. Thus, the contingency thesis simultaneously opens the field of the conflict.

Postfoundationalism is an approach which – at least in fragments and attempts – can be detected and proven in many (even classical) social theories. Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, for example, provide systematic explanations of postfoundational approaches in political philosophy. Postfoundationalism has been elaborated into a complete theory by Oliver Marchart in The Political Difference [Die politische Differenz] (2010a) and The Impossible Object of Society [Das unmögliche Objekt der Gesellschaft] (2013). My idea to develop a postfoundational concept of the city is based on this elaboration. In doing so, ‘city’ is for me not only a conceptual target but also a distinctive feature of the present postfoundational studies on the concept of society.[7] Nevertheless, my attempt to re-assign to the particular concept of the city its universal meaning – Laclau calls such a project “radical investement” (2005, 110) – is also a “parasitic intervention” (Stäheli 2000a, 72, and Marchart 2013, 48), because the intended socio-theoretical charge of the city is directly attached to the postfoundational social theory. However, being parasitic is, in any case, a characteristic of approaches to “poststructuralist social sciences” (Moebius/Reckwitz 2008), a field on which my text can also be located.[8] Also, the expansion I have undertaken – i. e., from society to the city – is not only a secondary concern but the central task of which – regarding the city – it is a matter of “distinguishing a word from a concept” that is always indispensable a “critical work” (Althusser 2011, 43).

The arguments for my approach – to attempt a postfoundational theory not of the social, but of the city – are the following: The concept of the city is, first of all, older than the concept of society (and that it being older enables to gain further facets from the postfoundational consideration). Secondly, both – “city” as well as society – were made stable and controllable entities by social-scientific objectivism, but material beings are more tangible in the concept of the city. And thirdly, finally, the connection to political thinking for the concept of the city (polis) is not only different (from that of the social) but also more immediately and directly producible. These distinctions are intended to make it possible to develop a postfoundational theory of the city as an independent contribution that can complement, sharpen and enrich the existing approaches of postfoundationalism.

The prerequisite for my theory project is, first of all, to become aware of the mechanisms of foundations and reasons. After all, the proposed discharge of ultimate foundations does not mean that there are no foundations at all in postfoundational thinking. “Without any reason,” would be no different than “arbitrary.” Therefore postfoundational thinking not only does not give up the search for foundations, it is precisely this search that becomes the actual core of the entire enterprise. Secondly, the postfoundational foundation is manipulated. It is a deliberately paradoxical foundation, a foundation that is intentionally unstable (Marchart chooses the metaphor of a mobile). Such an erratic foundation is something quite different from the stable and solid foundations that the positive sciences strive for in their theories. However, it may be this wavering construction that promises to give the postfoundational foundation a foothold on an equally also wavering ground (every foundation stands on a ground). The reason [Grund] for the foundation (cf. Marchart 2002) – in which the third characteristic – is also a strange instance. Laclau calls it the “constitutive outside,” Marchart simply “antagonism.” This elusive category can be best described by the forces active at the foundation of the social and the urban, namely contingency and conflict, the two “identical” elementary particles of antagonism. Finally, and fourthly, both the foundation and the strange ground on which it stands are afflicted: by spirits and ghosts, by present absences and effective inefficiencies. The task of my postfoundationalist/structuralist-founded theory of the city is to visit these figures on the urbanistic field and make them recognizable.


[1] A helpful critique of Glaeser’s elaborations are available at Peck 2016.
[2] (accessed 01/07/2017).
[3] (accessed 01/07/2017).
[4] See Erik Swyngedouw‘s reflections about the „combined and dissimultanous urban catastrophe“ (2016).
[5] (accessed 01/07/2017).
[6] See also the debate in sub\urban regarding Färber 2014.
[7] City and society have always been closely related concepts (Lefebvre 1996a, 100). And they may no longer be distinguishable from each other today, as a serious argument from one of the urban sociological eulogies to the concept “city” argues (cf. Krämer-Badoni 2004). For all urban sciences, however, such a separation is essential if they want to maintain their independence as a category of the city.
[7] Poststructuralism is a controversial term and refers to thinking that is completely rejected by some parts of the social science debates. The term “poststructuralist theory” is accepted here without question for the time being as a collective term for a school of thought, which originated in the tradition of a post-Marxist approach. Throughout the text, I will keep coming back to the question of what constitutes poststructuralist theory.

This is a translation of the first part of the introduction of Nikolai Roskamm’s recently published book The Unoccupied City – Postfoundational Thinking and the Urban Field (Orig.: Die Unbesetzte Stadt – Postfundamentalistisches Denken und das Urbanistische Feld), 2017, Bauwelt Fundamente.

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