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The discourse of the city

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posted on 2023-05-24, 06:14 authored by Kathleen FlanaganKathleen Flanagan

Have we always lived in cities? Even if we have, they have not been the experience of the majority, and nor are they now. The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas may surpass that living in rural areas, but ‘urban area’ should not be conflated with ‘city’. Moreover, the processes by which people who are ‘rural’ become ‘urban’, while normalised as inevitable and uniform, are in practice contingent and situated, and always have been, and the places in which they take place are plural, diverse and distinctive. The title of this collection is ‘Towards a philosophy of the city’, but perhaps because cities and the ideas associated with them are so multitudinous and contested, identifying a single philosophy that we might work towards is profoundly difficult, even if we could agree on a definition, experience or interpretation of ‘the city’, which we probably can’t.

In response to this difficulty, I have chosen to examine just one aspect of ‘the city’, the city as a consequence of consumer capitalism, and to do so using a form of discourse analysis. Discourse, rather than, say, political economy or critical urbanism, might be an unusual way to approach this form of ‘the city’, but the value of a discourse approach is that it exposes not just complexity, but the systems of regulation and ordering of knowledge that, in the usual course of events, prevent us from easily seeing that complexity in the first place. My approach is derived from the work of the French theorist Michel Foucault, particularly his book The Archaeology of Knowledge (2002 [1972]). Most notably, within this approach ‘discourse’ is not another word for ‘text’, verbal or written. Rather, discourses, says Foucault (2002 [1972]: 45-47, 54-61, 63), should be treated as ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’. Such objects emerge from particular ‘surfaces’, are ‘delimited, designated, named and established’, and categorised and classified according to ‘grids of specification’. Their emergence makes available positions, functions or statuses that can be occupied by discursive subjects. Brought together in regularised, specific relation to each other, they enable the existence of ‘a set of rules for arranging statements in series, an obligatory schemata of dependence, of order, and of successions, in which the recurrent elements that may have value as concepts [are] distributed’. Compliance with these rules determines the truth or falsity of statements made with respect to them. Put simply: discourses form systems by which we order and make sense of the raw material of the world; discourses make available to us ways of thinking, being and acting in relation to these systems of order; discourse forms the conditions by which knowledge emerges as legitimate, credible and authoritative.


Publication title

Philosophy and the City: Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Perspectives


K Jacobs and J Malpas






School of Social Sciences


Rowman & Littlefield International

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Copyright 2019 The Author

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Expanding knowledge in human society

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