Showing posts with label globalization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label globalization. Show all posts

Friday, June 27, 2014

"No money, no water" for Detroit—and possible punitive actions from the UN.

In addition to the water news out of Detroit, the UN has declared the U.S.
to be in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean
water to the poor.

Author and professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri

Flushing a toilet in Detroit has become a sign of white privilege. There, residents are facing what people in poor countries have experienced for decades: massive water cut-offs. Thousands of connections are being shut off per week as the city attempts to pay down its debt and attract a private contractor to lease its bankrupt water utility. 

This is what water privatization looks like. 

It looks like Johannesburg, South Africa, where a multinational water corporation moved in and began installing pre-paid water meters in black neighborhoods. “No money, no water,” the head of Aquafed, a coalition of private water corporations, stated. Cholera broke out. Riots ensued. 

Is this what is next for Detroit?

In one of the most segregated cities in America, the predominantly black urban center is suffering, while those in the mostly white suburbs continue taking showers, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. This is an environmental justice issue, a human rights issue, and a national sovereignty issue. Detroit’s water customers may well receive cut-off notices from France in near the future, where the world’s largest water multinationals are based. These companies, Suez and Veolia, are currently in the market for bankrupt American utilities. But the U.S. government says we cannot afford to supply our citizens with clean water anymore. We will try to make the poor pay instead, and possibly pay France. Water rates in Detroit have gone up 119 percent in preparations for privatization.

Finally, the UN has taken notice, stating the U.S. is in violation of international human rights laws by not supplying clean water to the poor. “Sick people have been left without running water and working toilets,” a panel of three experts from the UN Human Rights Office said in a statement issued on June 25. “People recovering from surgery cannot wash and change bandages. Children cannot bathe and parents cannot cook.” UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha said that if the water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans, “they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified.”

It is yet to be seen if the U.S. will pay attention to the UN’s scathing review of its water policies. At the very least, the UN has provided an embarrassing commentary on our dwindling status in the world. We have been gutting our water infrastructure budget since the days of Ronald Reagan and now need around one trillion dollars to keep it up and running. Instead, Republicans have consistently pushed for privatization of our water utilities, opposing what the Cato Institute calls “water socialism.” They want water capitalism, it seems.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan claims there has been “significant misinformation” about the water cut-offs. Things are not so bad, he said. There were only 46,000 water cut-off notices in May, and only 4,531 cut-offs—only 4,531 new toilets that will not flush, babies’ bottoms that cannot be wiped, wounds that cannot be cleaned. He thinks that is not too much. Water and Sewage Department Director Sue McCormick has also tried to allay residents’ fears, stating, “Unpaid Detroit water bills affect only Detroit customers. No suburban customers pay any extra on their bills to make up for unpaid bills on Detroit addresses.” People in the suburbs will be fine, she assures us; they will not be asked to pay more to keep the water running downtown. As for the U.S. government, it may be forced to pay more by the UN. If the U.S. does not correct this violation of human rights law by providing financial assistance to those who cannot pay for water, it faces UN punitive actions and a further lessening of status abroad.


Karen Piper is the author of The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos (Minnesota, October 2014), Cartographic Fictions, and Left in the Dust, which the Los Angeles Times has called an “eco-thriller” that every “tap-turning American” should read. A regular contributor to Places magazine, Piper is also a winner of Sierra’s Nature Writing Award and has published in numerous academic journals. She is professor of postcolonial studies in English and adjunct professor in geography at the University of Missouri.

"A wonderful book—full of commitment, deeply moving, with stories of real people affected by corporate water grabs. I highly recommend The Price of Thirst."
—Maude Barlow, chair of the board of Food & Water Watch

"Will conflicts over water define the 21st century as the battle to control oil did the 20th? Karen Piper gives us a vivid, inside view of the bizarre world of the water privatizers and their friends in the World Bank. She also offers inspiring account of their opponents: the emerging global movement to make clean water a universal human right."
—Mike Davis, author of
Planet of Slums

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lots of UMP authors talking at #AAG2012

The annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers kicks off today in New York City (Twitter hashtag: #AAG2012). Bringing together cultural and human geographers, GIS scholars, geography professionals, and scholars from disciplines as diverse as American studies, anthropology, political science, and communication, the conference promises to be a synthesis of the most cutting edge research happening across the social sciences.

The University of Minnesota Press will be exhibiting (come and visit us in booth #510), and we are proud to say that seven press authors are discussing their books during author-meets-critics sessions during the conference.

On Friday between 2:40 and 4:20, anthropologist Scott Morgensen will be part of an author-meets-critics session on his book, Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Decolonization.

On Saturday morning between 8:00 and 9:40, an author-meets-critics
session will discuss geographer Stephanie Rutherford's book, Governing the Wild: Ecotours of Power.

On Saturday between 12:40 and 2:40, Marieke de Goede, professor of
politics at the University of Amsterdam, will discuss her book, Speculative Security: The Politics of Pursuing Terrorist Monies in an author-meets-critics session.

On Sunday, between 4:40 and 6:20 pm, three press authors will be part of a panel titled Sex, Love, Labor and Spaces In-Between: New Books on the Filipina/o Diaspora. Geraldine Pratt will be discussing her book, Families Apart: Migrant Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love, which was published earlier this year. Kale Fajardo will be discussing Filipino Crosscurrents: Oceanographies of Seafaring, Masculinities, and Globalization, released by the press in late 2011. And Robyn Rodriguez will be discussing Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World, published in 2010.

And finally, on Monday afternoon from 4:40 to 6:20, a panel will discuss Susan Ruddick's translation of Pierre Machery's Hegel or Spinoza.

We certainly hope you'll check these out if you're there. And for those geographers unable to attend, you can refer to our catalog for a listing of our newest titles.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Almost two decades after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, the country still has a long way to go.

A beach in Cape Town, South Africa. In a recent report, South Africa received a lowest-possible rating for its lack of progress in addressing xenophobia. Image from Creative Commons.

Associate professor of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University

Recent news out of South Africa that the rainbow nation received the lowest possible rating for its response to xenophobia should not come as a surprise. Since the outbreak of violence against foreigners in the urban peripheries three years ago, the government has shown little commitment to addressing the underlying tensions that generated it. More broadly, the violence marked only one aspect of a failure of governance that has come to define the state in relation to the country’s townships since the end of apartheid almost two decades ago.

The African Peer Review Mechanism Monitoring Project (APRMMP), a creation of the African Union, gave South Africa a red light, its lowest rating, for its response to the 2008 wave of violence, finding not only a lack of progress in addressing xenophobia by government but also an element of denialism. Referring to the news, Tara Polzer Ngwato, of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, observed, “Government responses have been fragmented, poorly resourced and with limited political commitment.”

It is important to note that Ngwato’s description could easily refer to virtually any one of the country’s many social problems, particularly those that plague township communities, and speaks to the lack of progress in addressing apartheid’s legacy of underdevelopment. Indeed, the APRMMP also gave the country red lights for its efforts on poverty and unemployment, while only the management of elections earned a green light.

A complex web of relationships connects the many challenges the country faces. In my recently released book, I examine the city’s attempt to confront crime and gangsterism as the leading edge of its wider urban development strategy. What I found is that its anti-crime strategy, which in practice prioritizes displacing crime from affluent areas and containing it within poor areas, is rooted in a perception that the townships are a threat to the city’s revitalization.

Through this strategy, the city is attempting to disentangle the fate of the affluent downtown from that of the threatening periphery and protect the former from the "pathologies" of the latter. This conceptualization mistakes the source of the city’s disorder. In an attempt to deal only with certain consequences of a repressive inequality, the city fails not only in delivering development, it actually undermines it.

Similar to the challenge of gangs and crime, the failure to address xenophobia cannot be separated from failures to address poverty, unemployment, adequate housing, violence against women and children, and other dimensions of social development. What is required in South Africa, as in all unequal societies, is a reconfiguration of basic social relationships. Good policy – comprehensive, sustained, well-resourced – cannot accomplish this alone, but without government playing a central role, it is unlikely to happen.

Further, an effort at this scale this cannot be launched, much less sustained, through economic and governance strategies that are based on the alleged transformative power of free markets. South Africa’s leaders, like many global elites, hold fast to the idea that the path to development for struggling countries lies in reshaping the national economy as a destination for international capital. This has been the gamble the African National Congress and its partners in government have made for almost two decades, and seems determined to continue, despite its overwhelming failure to spark a South African renaissance.

The kind of comprehensive development strategy that is sorely needed would require the full attention of government for years, perhaps even decades, leaving little time and few resources required to host global events, such as the 2010 World Cup and other spectacles that, in part, are attempts to draw wealth to the country. Sadly, despite often laudable rhetoric, even the limited initiatives to address glaring inequality, whether at the national or local scales, have fallen victim to the forces identified by Ngwato: a lack of coordination, a lack of resources, and most importantly, a lack of genuine political will.

If the problems facing the average South African are unable to command the required attention from government, we should not be surprised that the danger facing even more vulnerable foreign residents has not compelled government to act. More insidiously, the strategy of portraying the “troubles” of the townships as somehow intrinsic to the social organization of the townships – the same implicit strategy employed with crime – goes beyond neglect. In fact it reveal another conscious iteration of the infamous narrative of ‘black on black’ violence used in a previous era to locate the cause of township unrest in township residents themselves, all the while making less visible the role of state and market actors. Such is the implication in a remarks made by Maggie Maunye, chair of the parliamentary oversight committee of the Department of Home Affairs, that foreigners were a cause of continued underdevelopment.

In both cases, xenophobic violence and criminal violence, some of the most vulnerable of South Africa’s residents are made to bear the burden of almost twenty years of failed social policy, neglect, and a now more colorful elite’s efforts to protect their social position relative to the nation’s majority. Until the political will is mobilize to upturn these entrenched realities, it is unlikely that any of South Africa’s vulnerable communities will be secure.


Tony Roshan Samara is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at George Mason University. He is author of Cape Town after Apartheid: Crime and Governance in the Divided City.

"Cape Town after Apartheid is a major contribution to the field of urban studies and criminal justice. It provides a framework for understanding gangs, violence, and neoliberal crime policies, emphasizing how security policies are rooted both in neoliberalism and apartheid-era policy and how they serve to strengthen gangs and fail to stem violence."
—John Hagedorn, author of A World of Gangs

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How motion, relationships, and productive tension help build better cities across the world

Barcelona has been hailed for its ability to inform future strategies for world cities in urban planning and regeneration. In the new book Mobile Urbanism, multiple contributors argue for a theorizing of both urban policymaking and place-making that understands them as groups of territorial and relational geographies. Image from Creative Commons.

Ward is professor of human geography at the University of Manchester.
McCann is associate professor of geography at Simon Fraser University.

The urban policy world is in constant motion. In a figurative sense, policymakers seem to be under increasing pressure to get a move on, to keep up with the latest trends and ‘hot’ ideas, to convert them into locally appropriate ‘solutions,’ and to ‘roll them out,’ to make the most of them before they become unfashionable. As waves of innovation arrive more frequently, a concordant ‘churning’ appears to characterize much of urban policy.

Contemporary policymaking, at all scales, appears to involve the constant ‘scanning’ of the policy landscape via professional publications and reports, the media, websites, blogs, professional contacts and word of mouth for ready-made, off the shelf policies and best practices.

It is in this context that figurative motion in the policy world becomes literal motion. Policy actors (a broadly defined category including politicians, policy professionals, practitioners, activists, and consultants) shuttle policies and knowledge about policies around the world through attendance at conferences, fact-finding study trips, consultancy work, and so on. These travels involve the transfer of policies from place to place, involving local, regional, national and supranational policymakers in networks that extend globally, bringing certain cities into conversation with each other (while pushing others further apart). They create mental maps of ‘best cities’ for policy that inform future strategies: Austin for quality of life and creativity, Barcelona and Manchester for urban planning and regeneration, Curitiba for environmental planning, Freiburg for sustainable living, Portland for growth management, and Porto Alegre for participatory budgeting and direct democracy. In a policy sense (as in other ways) cities are constituted through their relations with other places and scales.

While motion and relationships define contemporary policymaking, this is, of course, only half of the picture. Policies and policymaking are also intensely and fundamentally local. The examples we've listed confirm this point since our ability to refer to complex approaches to vexing problems through the use of a shorthand of city names indicates how tied certain policies are to specific places. For example, there is a Barcelona model of urban regeneration that rests on the historical-geographical circumstances of that city and its relationship with other regional and national forms of decision-making. While other cities might be encouraged to adopt the model, it is generally understood that adjustments will need to be made in order for it to work in those other locales. Similarly, it is understood that the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, for example, will not necessarily guarantee its successful adoption elsewhere. Furthermore, policy is fundamentally territorial in that it is tied up with a whole set of locally dependent interests. As such, policymaking must be understood as relational and territorial; as both in motion and simultaneously fixed, or embedded in place. The contradictory nature of policy should not, however, be seen as detrimental to its operation. Rather, the tension is a productive one.

This tension lies at the heart of Mobile Urbanism and is considered in each essay. While the essays are distinct, they are nevertheless united by their attention to the productive tension between territoriality and relationality in urban policymaking, governance, and politics. This manifests itself in three issues that appear and reappear in many essays. First, all of the contributors show that cities are assembled (literally put together) by what policy actors do and how they imagine the futures of their cities. These actors are continually attracting, managing, promoting, and resisting flows of information and knowledge while reaching out to make connections to places elsewhere. This is evident in Doreen Massey’s discussion of the London-Caracas agreement that offered material and political benefits to each city, at least until a new regime in London reoriented the city’s global outlook. Jamie Peck, for his part, compares two policymaking ‘moments’ in UK urban cultural policy. He argues that in each case local actors managed all kinds of ‘flows’ but he notes that the differences in how they managed these flows says as much about the wider systems in which the cities were embedded as about the cities themselves.

Second, most of the contributors offer more or less explicit critiques of the existing academic literature on policy transfer. The notion of ‘transfer’ is jettisoned and replace with the notion of mobility. This change reflects the concern of the authors to emphasize how polices change and mutate as they are moved from one place to another. Nowhere is that clearer that in the chapters by Kevin Ward on business improvement districts and Jennifer Robinson on city strategies. In the first of these the policy that emerged in 1970 in Toronto, Canada, is not the same as that introduced into the UK in 2001. As the model of downtown governance moved in and through various Canadian and
A model of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
has been produced in certain New York districts
and came to be appropriated by UK policymakers.
US cities, most noticeably New York, it morphed and mutated. Regarding city strategies for participatory decision-making in governance and planning, Robinson highlights their emancipatory potential. The model’s progressive potential seems to depend as much on the politics of the cities it passes through as much as the model itself.

Third, the essays offer varied insights into how best to study the movement of policies. There is value in paying attention to how various spaces are brought into being during the journey of a policy/program or in attempts to manage the movement of global flows in and through cities. This is clear in Roger Keil and Harris Ali’s discussion of the SARS outbreak, its flow through key cities, and the rapidly shifting geographies of medical knowledge that were involved in stemming its movement. Key to the spread of SARS were airports, and Donald McNeill’s chapter highlights how these are spaces and infrastructures that are managed globally in their own right. His analysis shows that the study of mobility is, necessarily, also the study of fixed infrastructures.

Finally, we can see the relationship between studying and following policies in Eugene McCann’s essay, which traces Vancouver’s drug policy, its origins elsewhere, and its ongoing connections to other cities. He uses a range of qualitative techniques to trace the inter-connections between places and argues that there is always a local politics of policy mobility that extends local debates out beyond the city limits and that lingers on after new policies have been ‘imported.’ Policy mobilities reflect and enforce urban ‘globalness.’

Mobile Urbanism
ultimately, to quote Cochrane in the preface, ‘makes it possible to explore the ways in which apparently distant phenomena can be drawn in by political actors to reinforce their position, to develop political initiatives, resolve or generate political controversy and build political power and authority.’ After Mobile Urbanism, the study of ‘urban’ governance and politics should never be the same again.


Find out more in Mobile Urbanism: Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age, edited by Eugene McCann and Kevin Ward.

The authors invite you to check out the Imagining Urban Futures Program of the University of Manchester, a program in which they are both involved.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Examining Ghana's use of intellectual property law to protect adinkra and kente fabrics

In Ghana, adinkra and kente textiles derive their significance from their association with both Asante and Ghanaian cultural nationalism. In her new book The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here, Boatema Boateng, associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, focuses on the appropriation and protection of adinkra and kente cloth in order to examine the broader implications of the use of intellectual property law to preserve folklore and other traditional forms of knowledge.

Adinkra cloth with nwhemu stitching.


Associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego

Q: First, what are adinkra and kente textiles?

Adinkra textiles are fabrics with designs stenciled onto them using a black dye. The fabric is used mainly for funerals, but when the designs are stenciled onto a white background, adinkra cloth can also be used for celebration. Each adinkra design has a specific meaning, for example, the most well-known design, Gye Nyame, refers to the power of God.

Kente cloth is made using the strip-weaving technique that is widespread in different parts of Africa. In Ghana, the name “kente” refers to the strip-woven cloth of two ethnic groups, the Ewe, and the Asante. My book focuses on Asante kente cloth, which tends to have more abstract designs and a more vibrant color palette than Ewe kente. As with adinkra cloth, the designs of kente cloth also have specific meanings. Where adinkra is used mainly for funerals, kente is used mainly for celebration.

Popular myths link both adinkra and Asante kente cloth to the Asante kingdom, which emerged in the early 18th century in the area that is now called Ghana and still exists in diminished form. Adinkra is said to have come from Gyaman, near the border between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and kente from Salaga, to the northeast of Asante.

Q: How do these textiles derive their significance?

They derive their significance from a number of sources. The most important of these are the fabrics’ association with (and reflection of) Asante royalty, culture, and history, as well as Ghanaian culture and history. The textiles are also significant for the symbolism of the designs used in their production, and in their primary association with death and mourning, in the case of adinkra cloth, and with wealth and celebration, in the case of kente.

Q: How does the appropriation of adinkra and kente textiles compare with appropriation issues that continue in other indigenous communities (such as yoga)?

At a very general level, the appropriation of adinkra and kente is similar to the appropriation of other forms of culture produced by indigenous peoples and local communities, especially when those cultural forms are deemed to lie outside the realm of intellectual property law.

However, Ghana cannot be described as an indigenous community in the same sense as, say, Native American communities in the U.S. Rather, the Ghanaian copyright protection of adinkra and kente designs is similar to cases like India’s patent protection of yoga poses because they involve the claims of nations over cultural production within their territories. The Ghanaian and Indian examples also show that indigenous culture takes a wide range of forms, and this is evident in the different kinds of intellectual property law that these nations have chosen in order to protect these cultural forms.

Q: The kente strip on the cover of your book depicts the copyright symbol. If kente cloth producers incorporate non-Ghanaian elements into their work, can it not be argued that they are also guilty of appropriation?

Weavers have for several years diversified their cloth production by incorporating a range of images into kente strips. Those images include numbers, letters, words, adinkra symbols and the symbols of sororities and fraternities (in the case of strips woven for the U.S. market). While departing somewhat from the abstract nature of most Asante kente designs, these strips retain important elements of kente cloth. In the examples shown in the book, the middle portions of the strips are similar to conventional kente cloth in featuring alternating panels and a traditional stool design.

These newer woven images and symbols are testimony to the dynamic and changing nature of cloth production as well as the skill of cloth producers. I should make special mention of Joseph Amegah of Accra, who wove the strip on the book cover. He was shown the copyright symbol, asked to weave it in a kente strip, and the result is the beautiful and original piece on the cover of the book.

That argument has been made (that appropriation exists here). However, a number of scholars argue that appropriation must be considered in relation to factors like the relative power of the actors involved. I share this view and in the book, I examine appropriation in relation to factors that include the scale at which it occurs, the medium in which it occurs, and the political and economic projects underpinning it.

Kente cloth in aberewa ben design.

Q: What parallels or divergences do you see between your work and others working in indigenous studies?

Many of us are concerned with the simultaneous marginalization and appropriation of the cultural production of indigenous peoples around the world and of local communities in Third World nations. Such marginalization and appropriation of indigenous cultural products, be they medicinal plants or fabric designs, relegates them to the status of raw materials, rather than artistic and scientific goods in their own right. This leaves them open to appropriation – often by groups and individuals who then claim ownership of their appropriations by recourse to intellectual property law.

Our work diverges in that my research focuses on a country that is different from indigenous communities because it has full independence and sovereignty as a nation-state. While it can be argued that nations like Ghana occupy a status that is neocolonial rather than fully postcolonial, they are equal, in some important respects, to other independent nations. This means that compared to indigenous peoples, they have relatively privileged access to the institutions of the international community. These include institutions that regulate the global circulation of cultural goods, like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Q: What implications do your research and conclusions have for global attempts to protect or regulate the exchange of traditional knowledge?

My work challenges arguments that have been advanced against granting such knowledge protection within intellectual property regimes, especially those arguments that place so-called “traditional knowledge” and “modern art and science” in separate and unequal spheres. By pointing to the culturally and historically contingent nature of intellectual property law, my book demonstrates that such arguments often have more to do with the relative power of different groups of cultural producers, than with the nature of what they actually produce. In making this argument, my work also challenges the premises of intellectual property law as well as the increasing use of intellectual property regimes to advance the interests of industrialized nations over those of Third World nations and indigenous peoples. Finally, it underscores the need to radically re-think the ways that cultural production is conceptualized for the purposes of protection and circulation.

Q: Does your book come to any conclusions about regulating intellectual property?

An important principle in intellectual property law is that both creators and users should benefit from cultural products. However, in many of their current national and international forms, intellectual property regimes essentially protect the interests of large producers over the interests of users and less powerful producers. In this set of arrangements, groups ranging from independent filmmakers in the U.S. to adinkra and kente producers in Ghana are all placed at a disadvantage.

In addition, intellectual property is based on ideas of creativity that are not universal and do not apply very well to cultural products like adinkra and kente cloth. Therefore, my concern is not with the successful regulation of intellectual property law as it currently stands in most parts of the world, but with its successful reform or replacement. I am interested in how one might arrive at an alternative framework that is more just in being sensitive to the interests of both producers and users of cultural products.

One alternative I explore in the book draws on scholarship that calls for renewed attention to the commons as an alternative to intellectual property law. I explore the idea of the commons while seeking to overcome the ways that this concept has been used against the interests of indigenous peoples and Third World nations. All too often, the cultural production of these groups is viewed as occurring in the commons and therefore free for the taking.

I argue that the concept of the commons can be a useful one if one thinks of it as a space of specialized cultural production. In doing so, it is also important to pay attention to its boundaries, and respect the right of those who work within it to manage those boundaries and determine the conditions on which one can draw from it. It is also important to undo the hierarchical ranking of different kinds of commons-based cultural production by viewing different commons as inter-related rather than discrete entities. Such a perspective makes it harder to celebrate the privileged spaces of commons-based cultural production in the global North without paying attention to the relative lack of privilege in commons like those of adinkra and kente production in the global South.


Find out more in The Copyright Thing Doesn't Work Here.

"This fine-grained historical and ethnographic inquiry into the social life of Ghanaian textiles is—quite simply and by several degrees of magnitude—the best study anywhere of how Western tropes of intellectual property fail to grasp the complexity of systems in which the traditional arts are practiced today. It should be required reading for policy-makers in world capitals and at international organizations."
—Peter Jaszi, American University

This post published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

Monday, January 31, 2011

How widespread protests in Tunisia and Egypt could lead to a rapid transformation of geopolitics in the Middle East.

After this month's uprising in Tunisia, many scholars and journalists pondered whether its example could spark other revolts. Still, many were taken by surprise when massive protests erupted in downtown Cairo on January 25th, 2011. Photo from Flickr.

Assistant Professor of International Relations, American University of Beirut

Watching Al Jazeera English in the living room of my Beirut apartment on the evening of January 14th, 2011, I was mesmerized by the thrilling pace of change in Tunisia. Since December I had been aware of ongoing protests, but as I followed minute-by-minute the unfolding of events in cinematic fashion, on a parallel track in my mind I was remembering the words of my friend and former colleague Bill Connolly. The last chapter of his book Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minnesota 2002) offers a corrective of Paul Virilio, who argues that speed short-circuits democratic deliberations and diminishes our capacity to think with concepts in relation to images. Connolly argues: “Virilio remains transfixed by a model of politics insufficiently attuned to the positive role of speed in transtate democracy and cross-state cosmopolitanism.”

As I watched the growing numbers of Tunisian protesters surround the dreaded Ministry of Interior on the main tree-lined boulevard of Tunis, I sensed that the rush of events, accelerating from an initial protest in a poor rural village, was culminating in a near spontaneous manifestation of mass courage. With little time for deliberation, the uprising became a broad-based challenge to the authority of the regime.

One of the many tipping points that drove the cascade of momentous political change was the refusal of the military chief of staff to open fire on the demonstrators. Did he deliberate on how he would be sacked (only to be reinstated after the fall of the regime)? When I heard the news that Tunisia’s long-reigning President Ben Ali had fled the country, I, like many, could hardly believe it.

I have to admit I took some emotional satisfaction in the fall of the regime as—along with many other scholars who have conducted research in the country—I had been frustrated by its tight control of the media and repression of any independent thought, let alone political dissent. While conducting my first round of research in Tunisia for what would later become the book Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World (Minnesota 2008), I found fieldwork challenging. I was told I must inform the authorities of the names of everyone I spoke to (I refused) and I was sure I was being followed during my first
Tourism became a tool that the Tunisian regime used to project
an image of stability and openness. Photo from Creative Commons.
weeks in the country. This experience contrasted sharply with Tunisia’s reputation as a relatively liberal, progressive Arab country. When Ben Ali came to power in 1987 he vowed to return Tunisia to political pluralism and democracy, but by the mid-1990s he had established what The Economist would call one of the most repressive police states on the Mediterranean. I later converted this experience into a major theme of the book, arguing that tourism development was a means to promote what I called “paradoxical globalization.”

As one element of its strategy for promoting economic globalization, tourism development provided countries like Tunisia with not only income and foreign investment, but a tool the regime used to project an external image of stability and openness. This façade masked increasingly repressive state control over the economy, society, and public space. The seeming economic success of the “Tunisia Model” and the regime’s suppression of Islamist movements were celebrated by friendly western governments and many journalists (such as Christopher Hitchens). Meanwhile, the harshness of the regime and shallowness of its openness were barely recognized in the United States. That image, however, seemed to crumble quickly in the face of massive popular protests directed at economic inequality, corruption, and oppressive rule. Thinking in images can help sustain a façade, but it can also fire the imagination and topple those long reproduced images.

In the wake of the events in Tunisia, many scholars and journalists pondered whether its example could spark other revolts. Most were skeptical. Many carefully-reasoned op-eds and blog posts outlined why this was unlikely until all were proved wrong by the unprecedented massive protests in downtown Cairo on January 25th. Three days later, demonstrators from all walks of life took to the streets and challenged the authority of President Husni Mubarak’s regime, sending the massive police forces into retreat. By the next day, Army tanks stood guard on city streets scrawled with graffiti exclaiming “down with Mubarak.” Social media networks clearly played a role in rapid mobilization and organization of protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but protests continued even after the Egyptian regime had ordered the shutdown of mobile phone networks and pulled the country off the Internet. By the time Mubarak addressed his people, his limited concessions were several weeks, if not thirty years, too late. One journalist remarked, “Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak wheels and turns like a dinosaur - too big in brute power, yet too small in the brain to comprehend that he confronts extinction.” [Link.] Meanwhile, the awkward, hesitant statements of US officials highlight the impossible task of reformulating policy in the midst of what could turn out to be a massive, rapid transformation of the geopolitics of the Middle East.

The example of Tunisia rapidly fired the imaginations of protesters across the region. But as Connolly recognizes, along with Virilio, speed can also be dangerous. The challenge to state authority in Tunisia and Egypt has ushered in much chaos and uncertainty. In the rush of events, few contemplated these darker sides of political transformation. Moreover, protests and potentially violent contestations for power remain. In Tunisia, the media has been liberated (with pressrooms spontaneously ousting their regime-imposed editors), developing a new constitutional system that ensures political pluralism and democracy—though it may be a long, fraught process. In Egypt, there are calls for a “mega-protest” on Tuesday to oust Mubarak. The consequences are uncertain. The regime is attempting to slow the process and collapse the momentum for change. At any moment, the army could turn on people and violence could escalate. What we can say, in any case, is that a sudden spark has unleashed new possibilities, new imaginations, and new challenges. The Arab world will never be the same.


Waleed Hazbun is assistant professor of international relations at American University of Beirut. He is author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World. He can be reached at

This article also references Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed, by William E. Connolly.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reunion Island's UNESCO designation puts spotlight on its medieval and colonial legacies—including its relationship with famous scholar Joseph Bédier.

Joseph Bédier (1864–1938) was one of the most famous scholars of his day. He held prestigious posts and lectured throughout Europe and the United States, an activity unusual for an academic of his time. A scholar of the French Middle Ages, he translated Tristan and Isolde as well as France’s national epic, The Song of Roland. Bédier was publicly committed to French hegemony, yet he hailed from a culture that belied this ideal—the island of Reunion in the southern Indian Ocean. Here, Michelle Warren discusses how France's medieval and colonial legacies have converged since the nineteenth century.

"The Origin of Métissage," Saint-Paul, La Réunion, part of a UNESCO-related project to mark the paths of the Indian Ocean slave trade—on the same shoreline as a monument to European settlement that once bore Joseph Bédier’s name. Photograph by Michelle R. Warren.

Professor of comparative literature at Dartmouth College

In July 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the land encompassed by the National Park of Reunion Island a World Heritage site. Covering more than 40% of the island, the site was recognized for its exceptional biodiversity as well as for its stunning beauty. At the same session, UNESCO also accepted the French Episcopal City of Albi, a visually striking example of medieval architecture. France's president Nicolas Sarkozy cited “the red city of Albi and the green fortress of La Réunion” as “the most emblematic monuments of our cultural and natural heritage.” Here, Sarkozy reaffirms a long-standing tendency to place both the medieval and the colonial at the heart of the French national psyche.

I read this news while correcting proofs for Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier’s Middle Ages, and I was struck once again by the uncanny yet consistent ways in which France’s medieval and colonial legacies have intertwined since the nineteenth century. In my book, I unravel some of these interactions by analyzing political discourse, World Fairs, medieval scholarship, and contemporary museums. The project began, though, with the life of Joseph Bédier (1864-1938)—a native of Reunion who also became one of France’s most famous medieval scholars and a figure of international prominence through his service in World War I and his popular translation of the romance of Tristan and Iseult (aka Tristan and Isolde).

Bédier was closely involved with politicians and cultural critics who tried to make Reunion more influential in the French empire, a task that became increasingly difficult as the government aggressively expanded its territorial claims in Africa and Asia. Especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Reunion seemed hopelessly peripheral and economically stagnant. To combat these practical obstacles, Eurocentric activists emphasized the island’s cultural value, casting the white elites as the guardians of France’s oldest and best traditions. They dubbed the island a “second France,” the “metropole of the Indian Ocean,” and even a “colonizing colony” for its role in the conquest of Madagascar. Bédier and his Middle Ages both played instrumental roles in these efforts.

Reunion Island sits several hundred
miles east of Madagascar.
Today’s initiatives to bring international attention to Reunion through UNESCO bear a surprising resemblance to the cultural politics of the colonial period. In both cases, Reunion is cast as a kind of “Eden,” an idyllic place that must be safeguarded from immigration and economic discrimination (under colonialism), and from invasive species and unsightly development (under globalization). In both cases, activists promote “culture” (be it the old aristocracy or harmonious multiracial diversity) as key to economic growth. In both cases, some citizens resist, valorizing non-European heritages or defending against ecological regulation.

Reunion’s status as a “successful” model of diversity emerges from another recent UNESCO designation: in 2009 the musical style known as maloya joined the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO describes maloya as “an element of national identity, an example of cultural mixing, a moral touchstone and a model for integration”; the cultural activists behind the initiative describe it as “the very symbol of the cultural identity of all the generations in Reunion; [it] truly embodies the values of tolerance, solidarity and openness which characterize society in Reunion.” Maloya, like the National Park, requires support and protection from “outside” influences. As “world” heritage, both culture and nature must maintain local specificity while also transcending it.

These conflicting pressures mirror the politics of culture in the colonial period: national ideals required visible regional “differences” and the absolute unity of the Republic. As I show in Creole Medievalism, distant times and distant places play similar roles in this double discourse, which shapes the Paris World Fairs, Bédier’s major publications, and several contemporary art projects. The Middle Ages and the colonies both oscillate between prestige and barbarism, converging on the scene of a young Bédier reading the medieval epic Song of Roland as a form of local history, under a mango tree on Reunion.

Reunion’s UNESCO initiatives respond to real social, economic, and ecological problems to which there are no obvious solutions. By understanding how today’s efforts are in dialogue with the past, the risks and rewards of cultural politics can become clearer. In order to leverage international recognition into greater national status, Reunion plays, once again, the “pure” and “harmonious” foil to the fractious continent. This strategy sidelines the dissension of lived differences even as it corrects past injustices. Creole Medievalism is about the role of historical memory in this irresolvable conundrum.


Read more about Bédier, colonial France and the island of Reunion in Creole Medievalism.

"A first-rate and fascinating book."
—Jody Enders, author of Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

M. Bianet Castellanos: Tourism in Cancún and its social and economic effects on indigenous communities.

Beach in Cancún, Mexico. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a free trade zone and Latin America’s most popular destination, Cancún, Mexico, is more than just a tourist town. It is not only actively involved in the production of transnational capital but also forms an integral part of the state’s modernization plan for rural, indigenous communities. Indeed, Maya migrants make up more than a third of the city’s population. Today, M. Bianet Castellanos discusses tourism to this popular destination and its impact on local indigenous communities.

Assistant professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota and author of A Return to Servitude: Maya Migration and the Tourist Trade in Cancún.


How does Cancún's popularity as a tourist destination impact indigenous communities?
With more than 3 million visitors annually, Cancún is one of Latin America’s most popular tourist destinations. Tourists are drawn to Cancún not only because of its beautiful beaches and warm climate, but also by the ancient remnants of Maya culture. Although tourist visits are brief (typically no longer than a week), they leave a deep impression on the indigenous communities surrounding Cancún. By their sheer numbers, these visits translate into service jobs, many of which are occupied by Maya migrants who make up approximately a third of Cancún’s population. Indigenous workers interact with tourists in hotels, on the street, and in airports. These encounters produce ideological shifts that transform local cultural practices. I offer two examples here.

First, to capture tourist dollars, rural communities have altered traditional gender roles in which men migrated in search of work and women remained at home. Prior to 1991, only two women left Kuchmil (a pseudonym for a rural Maya village studied in A Return to Servitude) to work as domestic servants in private homes because unmarried women who worked outside the home placed their reputations at risk. Today, the stigma once associated with migration has disappeared. To fill the demand for indigenous domestic servants, unmarried Maya women migrate to Cancún in almost equal numbers to that of men. Their earnings have granted these young women a greater decision-making role in the household and this earning potential has convinced them to postpone marriage for a few years. Twenty years ago, women were married by the age of twenty-five. Otherwise, they were considered old maids.

Second, ideas of leisure in rural communities that previously centered on spending time with family and attending religious festivals have been expanded to include local tourist consumption. Modeling themselves after the trope of the universal tourist (as sightseer and always at play) portrayed on television programs and visible in Cancún, indigenous migrants spend their leisure time visiting national tourist sites like Chichén Itzá in Yucatán and the Agua Azul waterfalls in Chiapas. Car ownership, a recent phenomenon, has made this type of leisure possible and affordable. Families also join group tours organized by their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues to places like Mexico City. But travel is not just confined to road trips. One young couple took a vacation without their children—a practice that is practically unheard of in village life—to visit the city of Puebla. They happily recounted their experience flying for the first time and shared photographs with friends and neighbors of the tourist sites they visited. Not surprisingly, they relied on the same practices (e.g. visiting historical sites, traveling on a guided tour bus, staying at hotels), and technologies (e.g. cameras and video cameras) to “consume” tourist places. For many Maya migrants, this type of leisure is associated with modernity and marks their transformation from peasant to cosmopolitan citizen. However, this type of leisure was not available to most migrants, given their tenuous economic circumstances.

How do threats to Cancun's tourism industry -- such Mexico’s drug war and last year’s swine flu scare -- impact these rural communities?
Cancún depends on the labor of the rural indigenous communities. Conversely, after land redistribution ended with the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and as agricultural production has declined, rural communities have also come to depend on tourism. This interdependence has been highlighted over the past few years as Cancún has faced hurricanes, a flu pandemic, a global economic recession, and the drug war’s escalating violence. After Hurricane Wilma devastated the city in 2005 (more than two-thirds of the hotels were shut down), many indigenous migrants lost their jobs or took a pay reduction. Hotel and restaurant workers depend on tips from tourists to supplement their minimum wage salaries. Tips can double and sometimes triple monthly salaries. Migrants’ reduced income had repercussions for the countryside because they could no longer send remittances to their rural families. It took migrant families approximately one year to recover economically from this disaster, only to then face another drastic reduction in tourism beginning in April 2009 when the swine flu pandemic broke out in Mexico City.

Few cases of swine flu were documented in Cancún, but the panic that ensued kept tourists away. Since the pandemic occurred during the low tourist season, Cancún’s economy could have recovered quickly with the onset of the high tourist season in December. Hotel workers put aside funds to get them through the low season. Then within months, the global economic recession followed. Tourists stayed away because they could not afford or were afraid to spend money on a vacation. Mexico lost more than $2 billion in tourist income in 2009. It was an especially difficult year for Cancún’s Maya workers. Like everyone else, they were dealing with the fall out of the banking crisis, but given their already marginalized economic existence, the lack of tourism left many people unemployed and with few options to find work. They quickly depleted their savings before the end of the year. Many returned home to their rural communities to seek financial help or eke out a living on farm work.

Further compounding these problems is Mexico’s escalating drug war. Since 2006, more than 28,000 people have died as a result of drug-related violence. According to the media, Cancún remained untouched by this violence until recently. On August 31, 2010, a local bar in Cancún was bombed, leaving eight people dead in what investigators have said is a drug-related attack. In spite of international media coverage of this incident, tourism has not declined and is showing signs of recovering from the flu pandemic and economic recession. Although the drug violence has tempered tourism to other parts of Mexico, Cancún has been spared because the bar attack occurred in a working-class neighborhood located far from the tourist zone. Given the Mexican government’s and transnational corporations’ dedicated efforts to police people’s movements in and out of tourist zones, urban violence usually takes place beyond tourist zones, making local residents, not tourists, its targets. Tourism, in spite of its seasonal flows and vulnerability to economic and natural disasters, remains central to the Mexican government’s plans for economic recovery. For example, after Hurricane Wilma, the Mexican government stepped in immediately to provide aid and help businesses re-open within six months. This is a good thing for indigenous communities because it means that tourist centers like Cancún (and the jobs they provide, even if they are minimum wage jobs) will continue to be bolstered during tough economic times by government funding.


For more information, check out A Return to Servitude, which is part of University of Minnesota Press's First Peoples series. Castellanos will discuss her book at 4 p.m. on November 30th at the University of Minnesota Bookstore.

This post was published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Activism and the new agricultural biotechnologies

This week's author feature is from the authors of Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology, which tells the story of how a group of social activists, working together across tables, continents, and the Internet, took on the biotech industry and achieved stunning success. Rachel Schurman is associate professor of sociology and global studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as coeditor of Engineering Trouble: Biotechnology and Its Discontents. William A. Munro is professor of political science and director of the international studies program at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is also author of The Moral Economy of the State.


Some people have asked whether our book is anti-biotech. In our view, that is not really the right question. The arguments over agricultural biotechnology are both deeply polarized and deeply polarizing (this is a key theme in our analysis). To characterize the book in terms of one or another broad label, such as ‘anti-biotech’ or ‘pro-biotech,’ is to adopt and to reinforce such polarization — it places our analysis in one of two possible categories. Yet, as we believe our book illustrates, such broad labeling obfuscates more than it illuminates.

To be sure, we offer a critical account of the agricultural biotechnology industry. But our purpose is to show that there are quite different ways of understanding technologies and their meanings, and that these different perspectives can be politically (and socially) consequential. In this case, it was the work of the anti-biotech activists that made these perspectives consequential. As social movement analysts, our aim is to show how and why they did so. Thus, while it is not uncommon to hear anti-biotech activists characterized as anti-science ideologues who don’t care much about the poor, we show that this kind of shorthand does not help us very much to understand the activists who constituted the anti-biotech movement. Their rejection of the technology was not simply visceral. They organized opposition on the basis of their personal and historical experiences, their deeply held values, and their political analysis of what the technology would mean for society and the environment. They developed their analyses collectively over time and in interaction with one another. In doing so, they observed and interpreted advances in science and technology that were associated with the emergence of scientist-entrepreneurs, changes in the legal system, the interests of the biotechnology industry, and the behavior of state regulatory agencies. We maintain that if one is to understand the roots of anti-biotech activism, as well as its political trajectory, it is crucial to understand these processes of “thinking work.”

This graphic appears in the introduction to Fighting for the Future of Food.

Moreover, in generating an analysis of these developments, activists acted not very differently from those in the industry, who also took a strong position though they stressed different values. The two groups drew opposing conclusions, the activists seeing peril where the industry saw promise. Our goal in the book is not to argue that one group is right or wrong, but rather, to reveal the concerns and motivations that both groups had and to show how these came into sustained conflict. As such, one of the key themes in our analysis is to show that, as political actors, both sets of protagonists in the struggle over agricultural biotechnology — activists and industry alike — were not only driven by, but also constrained by, what we call their “lifeworlds.” One can think of a lifeworld as a local culture and the people who constitute it. Lifeworlds are important for understanding the biotech struggle because they helped to produce shared accounts of the world and “normal” or commonsense ways of seeing and acting upon it.

Today, commentators sympathetic to the technology increasingly acknowledge that the technology has been ‘oversold.’ (See, for instance, this editorial in the July 2010 issue of Nature). As we show in the book, ‘overselling’ was a political mistake inasmuch as it gave the anti-biotech activists room to maneuver. But it was also culturally embedded in the industry’s lifeworld. In effect, industry scientists’ excitement about these new technologies was infectious; corporate managers felt this sense of excitement and promise and began to run with it. Then, acting as they would with any new product in which they had invested millions upon millions of dollars, they aggressively sought to market GMOs, which involved considerable hype and some hubris. The industry’s behavior not only outraged the activists but played into their hands. We argue that if we are to understand the struggle over biotechnology we must take the lifeworlds of both the activists and the industry seriously. Pasting a label on the book does not help to do that.


Find out more about Fighting for the Future of Food.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How the Philippine government propagates a model of "labor brokerage," even in a time of global economic crisis.

Robyn Magalit Rodriguez is assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She is author of Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World.


Despite an unprecedented global economic crisis, Filipinos are leaving the Philippines in the thousands for employment in hundreds of countries overseas.

It seems rather paradoxical; how is it possible for people from the Philippines to migrate during a period of crisis?

First, labor demand in labor-receiving countries persists. Indeed, long before the recent crisis, immigrant-receiving countries like the United States had been experiencing a major reorganization of employment relations, giving rise to what former American Sociological Association President Arne Kalleberg calls “precarious work.” He defines this as “employment that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky from the point of view of the worker” (p. 2 in 2009, “Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 74, p. 1-22). On one hand, it can be argued that migrants have always been confined to “precarious work.” On the other hand, more contemporary forms of employment precariousness are also creating new demands for migrant workers, including migrants from the Philippines. Migrants, Kalleberg argues, “are more willing than other workers to work for lower and to put up with poorer working conditions.” As the economic crisis deepens, it can only be expected that employers will continue to restructure work relations to further precarious employment conditions and if American workers continue to resist taking on these jobs, immigration will persist.

The Philippines supplies at least one-fifth of the world's seafarers. Find out more in this New York Times slideshow.

The expansion of precarious work, however, is a global phenomenon that also afflicts developing countries. In their bid to attract global capital, developing states have dramatically restructured employment relations in ways that generally favor employers and not workers. Employment precariousness creates social pressures in these countries, including increasingly restive social movements that demand better wages and working conditions, among other things. Rather than addressing these concerns, some development countries have turned to the export of labor—the second major reason for global migration during this period of global economic crisis. The Philippine government, as the article correctly points out, has perfected a strategy of what I call in my book “labor brokerage.” It has created a vast, highly rational bureaucratic process that mobilizes migrants for export. Though many would choose otherwise, Philippine citizens are opting to leave their families behind and work overseas.

While the world was reeling from the blows of the onset of the crisis in late 2008, the Philippine government hosted the recently formed Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and it was there where states, both labor-sending and labor-receiving, propagated the Philippine “model” of labor brokerage. Indeed, “guest worker” programs are being touted more and more by governments around the world as a means of addressing immigration “problems,” especially as increasing unemployment makes precarious forms of work more desirable to native workers than they used to be. Interestingly, the next GFMD meeting is being hosted by the Mexican government this year, while the Mexican state, it seems, is attempting to address its emigration “problems” by promoting mechanisms by which its citizens can leave the country through the legal channels that guest worker programs promise. Yet if the Philippines is a “model” it is ultimately a “model” of what one critic calls “legalized human trafficking.” Workers in the Philippines, even when covered by employment contracts and other laws that the Philippine government has introduced supposedly to protect workers, find themselves going from conditions of employment precarity in the Philippines only to be inserted into precarious employment conditions elsewhere in the world.

To make things worse, their status as non-citizens makes them all the more vulnerable to exploitation. Even when they are “legal” workers, employers’ interests for cheap and docile workers trumps workers’ entitlement to just terms of employment.


Read more about this topic in Migrants for Export.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

War and video games

The recently leaked video of a deadly U.S. military attack in Iraq prompted many to note the footage's similarity to a video game. Technology writer Clive Thompson tells NPR's On the Media:
Sure. Predator drone strikes, they're highly virtualized situations, right? I mean, you have someone sitting on American soil or in a nearby country, you know, piloting a drone able to shoot and kill. And so, everything is done through an interface in the same way that everything on a video game is done through an interface.

It’s going to be a constant question for us as a society and for the military whether or not, as they become more game-like, that creates an effect that makes it easier to kill people in a way that you might not want to make it easier to kill people.

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter have more to say on this topic. Their recent book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games includes the chapter "Banal War: Full Spectrum Warrior," which takes us through "virtual therapies" developed by the Pentagon to assist U.S. soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and argues that Full Spectrum Warrior is illustrative of a "cyclical connection between the actual and virtual dimensions of Empire," (98) the 21st-century hypercapitalist complex theorized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

Click here for more information about Games of Empire.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Understanding Dubai's political economy

Almost two months ago, author Waleed Hazbun wrote a provocative piece on this blog about the current economic climate of Dubai. At the time, the article came on the heels of the news that Dubai's state-owned real estate firm, Nakheel, was deeply in debt and seeking help to make bond payments. Now, in light of the incredible news that the much-hyped Burj Khalifa (formerly Burj Dubai) has been closed to the public just one month after its grand opening, the article's analysis of Dubai's infrastructure has fresh relevance. Read on as Hazbun lays out a list of possible alternate futures for Dubai.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Non-sex workers writing about sex work

Australian sex worker Elena Jeffreys has written a review essay for Intersections about four books written by non-sex workers about sex work. She features Tiantian Zheng's Red Lights:

Zheng proposes that it is too simplistic to conclude, as Pan Suimin did, that clients only see sex workers for reasons of sexual pleasure. Rather the Chinese men in Dalian see sex workers as a foil to impotence and proof of their strength against China's condemnation of promiscuity. Participants of sex work, clients and workers, are struggling against dominant social conditioning.

Read the entire essay here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Future of Dubai?

In previous years, the brash city-state of Dubai has made news with its exuberant stream of headline-grabbing megaprojects. The emirate, one of the seven that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), erected iconic buildings such as the billowing-sail-shaped Burj al Arab. It was a place where architects could realize visions considered impracticable anywhere else, and it became known as a tourist destination for global celebrities (its “heliport” has served as a tennis court for Andre Agassi and Roger Federer and a golf green for Tiger Woods). When that was not enough, the state-owned real estate firm, Nakheel, began building a series of artificial islands, including one in the shape of a palm tree and another a collection of small islands forming a map of the world. These projects led New Yorker writer Ian Parker to note that “Dubai ... is smitten with the idea of its own aerial legibility.”

Last week, however, Dubai made news after Nakheel’s parent company, Dubai World, announced it was seeking to restructure $26 billion of debt, including a $3.5 billion Islamic bond that is due for repayment on December 14th. While this crisis has sparked a new round of concern about Dubai’s future, it has not been the first sign of trouble. Over the summer, construction ground to a halt and an indeterminable number of Dubai’s foreign residents (who make up 90% of its population) have fled. Some reportedly abandoned their luxury automobiles, bought with loans they could no longer pay back, at the airport.

As we wait to hear the results of closed-door negotiations between Dubai World and its now-very-nervous creditors, the future of Dubai remains uncertain. In the meantime, to gain some perspective on the on the situation, we checked in with author Waleed Hazbun. A professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, last year he published Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World, which includes a chapter on the emergence of Dubai as a travel and tourism hub.



As some reviewers have noted, Beaches, Ruins, Resorts did not attempt to foreshadow the current economic crisis. What it does provide is a framework for understanding the underlying political economy of Dubai. In short, I argue that the ‘Dubai model’ and the emirate’s external image are based on continually re-inventing itself and its urban form, refracting global trends in architecture, real estate, leisure, and capitalist development. The island projects, which literally remodeled the shape of the emirate, exemplify this process.

In contrast to those like Thomas Friedman, I show how this flexibility is not a product of embracing free markets and liberal capitalism but is sustained by a system of authoritarian control over space and flows. Here, I follow cultural anthropologist Ahmed Kanna, who refers to Dubai’s jagged edges.

In Dubai territory is almost exclusively owned by the ruling family and managed by the government and state-owned entities allowing the government to partition the emirate into separate zones with their own rules and incentives for different private sector activities and social groups.

In this system, the social and economic dislocations caused by the emirates need to adjust to global markets is born not by the citizens or government but rather by foreign capital, foreign firms, and foreign labor--all of which are treated as expendable.

Thus for Dubai in the future to realize its self-defined goal of being a ‘global icon’ and model for other cities in the Arab region and beyond, it will have to again attract massive flows of capital and people. It will need to project yet another round of startling images of ambitious projects like the soon-to-be-completed Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. With its solid infrastructure, efficient bureaucracy, political stability, pools of talent, and location within an unstable region still afloat in petrodollars, this seems possible, but increasingly less likely to match Dubai’s script.

I began thinking about alternative futures for Dubai last spring when asked to speak on a panel, “Dubai. Building a Thematic City” at the Disseny Hub Barcelona (find video of the full session here). I was asked how the economic crisis, then beginning to hit Dubai, would impact its future. Rather than suggesting I could predict how Dubai might evolve, I outlined five possible alternative futures, each representing some of the critical forces now at work shaping Dubai’s evolution:

1. Spectacle of decline:
The real estate crisis leads to a crash-and-burn. Expats and investment flee. A city of financial ruin, half built buildings, broken dreams, and ecological disaster.

2. A monument to the moment: Unable to re-invent itself with new projects, Dubai’s urban form remains frozen in its present, quickly dated form. A slowly decaying reminder of an experimental vision of the future that never came.

3. Nationalist retrenchment:
The citizens of Dubai and the other emirates rein in the excesses of Dubai’s leaders and expat communities, bringing Dubai more in line with the socially and financially conservative neighbors and more under the thumb of the UAE’s oil-rich political capital Abu Dhabi.

4. Boutique “neo-liberal” city for the global elite: Unable to sustain its middle class residents and tourists, Dubai becomes an exclusive luxury holiday and second home location for a narrow slice of the global jet-set. Governed by merciless neoliberal economic policies and a stark separation between the super-rich and its exploited labor force, Dubai comes to better resemble the ‘evil paradise’ depicted by radical geographer Mike Davis and the world of Michael Winterbottom’s film Code 46 (partially filmed in Dubai).

5. A cosmopolitan metropolis: It is possible the downturn will refocus Dubai around its diverse, cosmopolitan community of residents and professionals of all class backgrounds. If the regime gave them more of a stake in the place and opened up public spaces for fostering community, creativity, and a sense of place, Dubai might evolve into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Architect Rem Koolhaas has sought to promote aspects of this vision in his design for the Dubai Waterfront that would give Dubai an area with Manhattan-like density and spaces for street-level activity (see a recent New York Times article on his vision).


For those in New York City this weekend, Waleed Hazbun will be participating in a debate exploring questions relating to future of the urban form in Dubai and elsewhere. The panel, “Short-stay / Long-stay: City Planning and City Marketing” will take place December 12, 2009, between 3pm and 5pm at Studio X, located at 180 Varick Street.

This panel is the forth in a global series organized in preparation of the publication of Al Manakh 2, a survey of new urban developments unfolding in the Gulf region, produced by Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Rem Koolhaas, Archis Foundation and Pinktank.

Also: In 2011 the University of Minnesota Press plans to publish what promises to be a path-breaking work by cultural anthropologist Ahmed Kanna, who has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Dubai and writes about its architectures of the past and future.