Michael Dear, University of Southern California(above)
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SUPERLATIVE URBANISMS: The
Necessity for Rhetoric in Social Theory
Bob Beauregards Voices of
Decline is a wonderfully nuanced meditation on the ways cities are
made. His recent paper City of
Beauregards paper is essentially
an extended complaint about the rhetorical turn (my term) in urban
studies. This he ascribes to many
factors, including the advent of postmodern thought, globalization, and the
structure of academic incentives and rewards.
Examining urbanists use of superlatives and firsts, plus advocates
quest for paradigmatic pre-eminence, Beauregard pleads for relief from
rhetorical excess as well as a better balance between engaged analysis and
critical distance. His principal points
of empirical reference are the literatures on
The necessity for rhetoric
Let me get straight to the heart
of the matter. Beauregard dislikes what
he perceives as rhetorical excess, leading as it seems to unnecessarily
inflated claims, a crude boosterism, and exclusionary tendencies in theoretical
discourse. Nowhere in his catalogue of
complaints does he recognize the gains that rhetoric brings. My brief, in a nutshell, is that without
these superlative urbanisms, we would still be mired in the old
traditionsemploying Chicago School precepts as the basis for understanding,
and regarding the east coast and Midwest as home to the only cities of
consequence. But, truth be told,
There is another reason that
firsts and superlatives have a proper place in urban discourse. Rhetoric, as persuasion or argument, has a
long and honorable tradition in human affairs.
(Think, for example, of the importance of metaphor in theory construction,
as in the city as organism.) The purpose
of rhetoric is to persuade interlocutors of the validity of alternative
propositions. Hence, when advocates make
boisterous claims on behalf of their city, they are simply doing what is
necessary in order to scour the scales of dead traditions from others
eyes. Their rhetoric encourages new ways
of seeing, and, as such, is a vital foundation in any emerging discourse (see
Dear, 2000, Ch. 15, for a discussion of how this process has worked differently
in geography and urban planning). Had we
not had the rhetorical rumblings that accompanied the birth of the
And yet, if rhetoric is good,
even necessary, how shall we distinguish among the competing claims of
Standards of evidence
Argument proceeds in many
different registers, but one of the most common hortatory devices is the appeal
to evidence (of whatever kind). In an
essay that is deeply critical of the way some urban theorists marshal their
facts, Beauregard is surprisingly inattentive to his own standards of evidence.
It is transparently clear that
different standards of proof apply to Beauregards three principal evidentiary
categories: superlatives, firsts, and paradigmatic shifts/claims. The use of superlatives belongs to a
long-established rhetorical tradition, as I have just outlined, in which
language is properly used to draw attention and to persuade others of the value
of ones perspective. These devices are
intended to do little beyond commanding attention, however, and rarely endure
as a justification for sustained analysis.
For instance, Gottdeiners 1991 claim for Orange County, California, as
a suburban prototype gained little or no purchase, and he himself has since
gone on to embrace Las Vegas as prototype.
Beauregards example of
Paradigmatic shifts/claims are
much more difficult to measure or demonstrate.
Although Beauregard claims that the quest for paradigmatic status is
the main issue, or the real objective of the upstart urbanists, no-one
Finally, claims of first-place
ranking are, on the face of it, often easily verified empirically;
Critical social theory
In the conclusion of his essay,
Beauregard appears to blame the rhetorical excesses he describes for the
decline in critical urban theory. While
I am truly sympathetic with his desire for such a theory, he makes very little
progress with this agenda, beyond a few rhetorical flourishes of own.
Beauregard concedes that many
analysts he criticizes do evince a critical stance, in that they condemn the
material conditions that many city-dwellers are obliged to endure. He goes on to assert the importance of
self-criticism, understood as awareness of the form and rhetorical
construction of ones own arguments; he links this to objectivity,
i.e. problematizing the connection between who we are and what we study;
and pleads for a critical engagement, a balance between reflection and
attachment (self-critique). The
critical distance that Beauregard embraces would replace detachment with a
reflective and involved objectivity.
These are, as Beauregard readily concedes, problematic practices, but
he does little to resolve their contradictions, or to point ways ahead in urban
theory and practice.
Today, most social theorists
would quickly protest that (of course) they self-consciously practice some
combination of the potpourri of critical approaches served up by
Beauregard. In a postmodern world, only
the brave and misguided (some do exist!) would disavow difference. So: the value of a critical theory of how we
know cities is by now well-established.
But what does a critical analytical practice look like? Here, Beauregard is silent. For me, the most promising answer to this
question may be found in comparative urban analysis.
The current proliferation of
competing schools of urbanism should be welcomed as one basis for
self-reflexive, critical urban theory and analytical practice. The claims made by Los Angeles, Las Vegas,
and Miami (among others) are a necessary piece of an emerging comparative
urbanism that I take to be the single most compelling agenda in contemporary
The dynamics forging these (and
other) cities are increasingly well-documented: globalization, the information
revolution, economic restructuring and social polarization, immigration, and
the crisis of environmental sustainability.
Such social processes are dialectically related to concomitant spatial
forms; respectively, world cities, cyber cities, dual cities, hybrid cities,
and green cities. These (sometimes
literal) concretizations of social process are themselves determinant of social
practices, and find expression at multiple urban scales. For me at
least, they form the bases for a revitalized urban theory and empirical
I believe that a comparative
urbanism requires that world cities, megacities, ordinary cities, and cities of
the developing world be axiomatically incorporated into our analytical
purview. The closest we may get to
objectivity or critical distance is when we are obliged to confront difference
through others eyes. This seems to me
to be the most promising way toward the kind of critical urban theory that
Beauregard, Robert. 2002 (2nd ed.) Voices of
Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities.
Dear, Michael. 2000. The Postmodern Urban Condition.
Dear, Michael. 2002a.
Dear, Michael. 2002b.
Dear, Michael and Gustavo Leclerc
(eds.) 2003. Postborder City:
Cultural spaces of Bajalta California.
MICHAEL DEAR is a Professor of
Geography and Director of the Southern California Studies Center at the
Los Angeles Studies : the emergence of a specialty field
by Torin Monahan
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