Manchester University Cities group had organized the debate on Friday evening involving these big brains from around the world and focusing on a discussion of ‘whither urban studies?’ It was a heavily intellectual debate, with reference to many intense philosophers (and niggly discussions about what caused arguments between Marx and another philosopher or whether such-and-such a philosopher was a classic Marxist or not – discussions which you may gather from my tone I don’t find useful or enlightening in any way). However, one thing that emerged, at least in so many words, was the need to make urban studies (and other academic fields by implication), more political, more engaged, and more critical. On the flip side of this however was the lament that the academic world was constraining the possibility for that by forcing academics to struggle for grants which tied them down to trivial matters rather than big thoughts about society and its problems.
This was all very convincing. Yes, I thought, we should be making our work applicable, usable, and comprehensible to people outside academia. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in arguing over who is following Marx more dogmatically than who, and whether Spinoza had more valuable things to say than Hardt and Negri or Hannah Arendt. And to be perfectly honest, this doesn’t really help anything. I agree that we need to allow ourselves the space to think, deeply and extensively, about what is going on in the world, and to use whatever analytical and philosophical tools we can get our heads around in order to comprehend it, but should we feel that that is a job well done? That we need do nothing else in order to assure we make a difference? I asked Andy Merrifield, given what he had said once ‘to change space is to change life, to change life is to change space, architecture or revolution, neither can be avoided’, whether we should be aiming to shape and change space, or life, or both, and how? As Erik Swyngedouw was also standing there, I threw in the fact that with all this talk of bringing in the political, where is the action? Swyngedouw’s response was that acting without thinking is not helpful, that we need to think before jumping on whatever activist bandwagon comes along. A fair point, but then, as Merrifield pointed out, you can think yourself into complete inactivity, it’s possible to think too much. As for how to take it forward in action however, Merrifield responded that it was a question for me to answer.
With all those big brains in the room arguing for the return of the critical, political edge to theory, it is still no clearer how a person should or could take these ideas forward into life, and indeed whether there is a point to all this philosophical talk without thinking about how it could be applied to enact or encourage some kind of change. Yet, I suppose this is in fact a question (or set of questions) for us each to tackle on our own. How much do we need to think about things before acting? How should we act as a consequence of that thinking? Or should we act without feeling that our thinking about something is complete? Maybe the act of doing is a form of thinking as well. Maybe we learn more from the acting itself, than from reading all the Marx and Arendt and Spinoza and Zizek and Harvey that our brains can handle.
At the end of the day, as usual, there are always more questions than answers. Still, I feel enriched by all the thinking, and maybe the only honest answers will always be or at least lead to more questions.