The Boomerang and the Map

Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism

Verso, 432pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781844677627

reviewed by Jeff Heydon

Living in downtown Toronto during the G20 summit in the summer of 2010 was instructive. Myriad CCTV cameras were erected, additional police were imported from multiple municipalities close to the city, and a barrier was established around the Convention Centre that would protect the leaders of nations from the Great Unwashed. A new Toronto was produced – a city where the condition of living became a process of negotiation and where attempts were made to avoid any act that would qualify as ‘conspicuous’.

The result of reading Graham’s Cities Under Siege is an immediate reassessment of that initial reaction. In light of an overwhelming amount of research and carefully considered theoretical applications to linked trends in security and the production of the visible citizen, the events of the G20 appear to be relatively mundane. Graham’s uncovering of the mechanisms being developed and the general approach to the control of urban populations – typically in political climates that are inherently distrustful of cities – opens up the question of how the contemporary condition of urbanity functions on political and sociopolitical levels.

In Society Must Be Defended (Allen Lane, 2004) Michel Foucault argued that while colonial powers undeniably transplanted their values and governing practices to the cultures they invaded, newly developed techniques of control that were the result of colonial practices would often be carried back to the domestic sphere. Foucault called this returning flow of strategies of control and domination ‘boomerang effects’. Graham tracks this recognition down to the current modifications taking place in the larger Western cities today. The techniques developed to manage ‘hostile’ populations and set up hyper-controlled zones in Afghanistan and Iraq are being transferred in a very conscious way back to North America and Western Europe. Following a noticeable emphasis on technological developments in the conduct of warfare, as well as the expansion of electronic media into nearly every facet of our lives, Graham states that ‘[t]he writing of this book is partly motivated by the absence of an accessible and critical analysis exploring how resurgent imperialism and colonial geographies characteristic of the contemporary umbilically connect cities within metropolitan cores and colonial peripheries.’ This book, then, is an attempt to draw the typically separated worlds of international political and military analysis, and domestic security and social organisation together.

What emerges very quickly here is that the divide between these areas of inquiry is much smaller than it might appear. In ‘three broad thematic chapters’ and ‘seven extended case studies’ Graham interrogates trends in domestic and international security, population demographics, and market-driven motivations regarding the closing and monitoring of urban space. Practices of ‘hyper-incarceration’ currently carried out in the United States begin to bleed into the practices surrounding extraordinary rendition in Afghanistan and Iraq. The establishment of a process of removal, and the continuous threat of enacting that process of removal independent of reason or demonstrable justification, have become an international condition of governing on the part of Western powers.

The trend towards a mechanisation of all aspects of security opens up discussion as to the role of technology in the determination of the humanity of citizens. The recognition that modes of crowd control developed in Iraq have been transferred to civilian police forces for use in events like the G20 summit draws a line under the contemporary viability of Foucault’s ‘boomerang effect’. The degree to which a regime of control is transferable from one theatre of conflict to another now seems to come down to the approach a dominant power structure takes toward its own population. Going back to the G20, the shift I noticed personally in the way an area feels, or in how I related to my surroundings, was substantial. The ease with which practices that would have been refined in the construction of the ‘green zone’ in Baghdad were transferred to an alternate city was unnerving.

The language coming out of the police department prior to the construction of the safe area for the summit included the predictable assurances that the changes made to the area – the CCTV cameras installed across the downtown area as well as the concrete barriers placed around the property line of the Convention Centre – would disappear shortly after the event concluded. The aggressive monitoring of the area was something that was temporary. The militarisation of central Toronto, in other words, was something that could be implemented, carried out and scaled down (supposedly) according to the demands of the situation. Not only is the new military urbanism something that can be erected quickly, according to the lessons learned from previous experiments in control, but the hoof prints can be swept away almost as soon as they’ve been pressed into the gravel. The type of procedural and technological adjustment that Graham highlights can be visible or invisible, present or simply held in reserve.

That these procedures are available to virtually every police force on the planet is no longer noteworthy. What is of interest is the sheer number of different areas affected by these processes of control. Cities Under Siege traces links between the automobile industry, the defence industry, domestic and international politics and the conceptual redefinition of local, national and regional boundaries. Reasoned case studies illustrate what is in fact a much larger and more pertinent question – namely, in what sense are cities things that still belong to those who live in them? Is a city a place that belongs to its citizens or is it an organism that is forever under surveillance, under inspection for fear of a disease that might be rotting it out from the core?

Graham’s response to this question is, in short, a breathtaking assemblage of research coupled with a reasoned, considered take on the likely direction of the mechanisms of control that are becoming more and more commonplace. Where it would be tempting to fall into a techno-deterministic rhythm when investigating this subject, Graham manages to hang on to and develop the theoretical questions that are pertinent to the subject matter. He argues that the purpose of the book is to address a lack of cross-disciplinary inclusion in the debate surrounding cities. As difficult as it seems to avoid limiting the debate to one area of inquiry or another, Cities Under Siege accomplishes this to a remarkable degree. In attempting to incorporate what are normally presumptively disparate areas of social investigation, Graham has developed a text that should be compulsory reading for anyone planning to research the contemporary condition of urbanity.
Jeff Heydon is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Sessional Instructor at the Centre for Communication, Culture and Information Technology, University of Toronto.