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Stefan Kipfer talks about Urban Revolutions

Stefan Kipfer talks about Urban Revolutions

Stefan Kipfer

On Tuesday, January 24, Professor Stefan Kipfer was joined by Prof. Kanishka Goonewardena (Geography & Planning, University of Toronto) and Prof. Laam Hae (Politics, York University) for a discussion of his book Urban Revolutions: Urbanisation and (Neo-)Colonialism in Transatlantic Context.

In preparation for the event, EUC graduate student, Danielle Legault, interviewed Stefan Kipfer, on what and how the struggles over pipelines in Canada, housing estates in France, and shantytowns in Martinique help us to understand the (neo-)colonial aspects of capitalist urbanization in a comparatively and historically nuanced fashion.

1. Can you explain how this book fits into the longer trajectory of your academic work?

Since the 1990s, I have researched urban politics in relationship to a number of currents in social and political theory. In this spirit, I co-edited two volumes intended to shape the cutting-edge of theoretically informed urban and geographical research, a volume on the work of Henri Lefebvre in 2008 and a book on the work of Antonio Gramsci in 2013.

Urban Revolutions connects two theoretical currents, marxism and anticolonialism, in order to shed light on the colonial and neo-colonial aspects of urban life in our capitalist world. It does so in part by drawing upon collaborative research I did with my colleague Kanishka Goonewardena (University of Toronto) on urbanization, imperialism and multiculturalism in the 2000s and early 2010s. Like this and my other previous work, the book develops theoretical dialogues on the terrain of urban research. I hope to show that urban research can be very good at bringing big theoretical questions to the realities of everyday life, and vice versa.

2. What are the key contributions or points that this book adds to debates in the field? (Who else’s work inspires your work)?

The first two chapters of the book stage a dialogue between two important intellectuals of the 20th century: Henri Lefebvre (the marxist philosopher, sociologist and urban researcher) and Frantz Fanon (the psychiatrist, theorist of liberation and anti-colonial revolutionary). By striking a dialogue between these two authors, these chapters develop novel interpretations of their respective work, discussing the meaning of colonisation in Lefebvre’s urban theory while unearthing the geographical (also urban) aspects in Fanon’s writings on racism and colonialism. In the following chapters, I bring the insights developed in this Lefebvre-Fanon dialogue to other intellectual debates: creole literature and creole literary theory (as exemplified in the novel Texaco by Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau), radical Indigenous theory (the works of Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson) and what in mainland France is called political anti-racism (for example the works by Sadri Khiari and Houria Bouteldja).

3. What drew you to the particular examples that you use in the book?

Top to bottom: Enbridge Pipeline #9 in Toronto, South of York University; Demolition of housing blocks in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Paris region, France; Towards Texaco, Fort-de-France, Martinique.

The theoretical engagements in the book are anchored by geographical topics set in particular places: shantytown politics in Martinique, Indigenous mobilizations against pipelines on this part of Turtle Island (also called Canada), and strategies to redevelop public housing estates in Paris, France. These topics reflect the fact that my empirical research and my intellectual engagements have moved back and forth between English Canada (Toronto) and the Francophone world (mainland France and beyond) over the last two decades. More substantially, the choice of topics is meant to highlight key urban processes that are also hotly debated in the literature: the informalization of urban life (particularly in the global South, but not only), the expansion of infrastructural networks (which are both elements and conditions of urbanization), and, finally, gentrification (which highlights a more general trend, the ever more intense commodification of urban space). The title of the book (Urban Revolutions) riffs off a book Henri Lefebvre published in 1970 to say that these processes speak to the deep urban transformations of our world (‘urban revolutions’) which also create conditions for projects of radical change (revolutions).

4. What kinds of impact do you think your book might have, outside of its impact on academic debates?

A number of chapters in the book benefited greatly from my engagements with non-academic political debates and social movements. For example, one chapter focuses on the racialized and neo-colonial dimension of public housing redevelopment in the Paris region, while also drawing on an article I published in the early 2010s about the anti-racist party Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR). A French-language version of this book published in 2019 (entitled Le Temps et l’Espace de la [Dé]colonisation) was commissioned because some of my research on France had already been circulated and discussed in non-academic circles in France, including the PIR. My hope is not only to bring the book to the non-academic world, but that academics keep developing their research in and through their relationships with fellow citizens and inhabitants beyond the academy. For these purposes, I do hope that the book offers useful resources for others committed to connecting the two big modern revolutionary traditions (socialism and anti-colonialism) to both understand and change our increasingly urbanized world.

5.  Having completed this book, how do you see your work moving forward in the future?

I have already begun to bring some of the insights developed in the book to my more recent research project on the far right and ways of resisting it. The far right, and its various components (ranging from right populist to neo-fascist tendencies), has been a growing force in various parts of the world since the 1980s. The work completed for Urban Revolutions has helped me formulate some of the questions I ask in this ongoing project, which uses mainland France as a crucial entry point to broader comparative debates about the subject.In particular, I am curious about, first, the role imperialism (colonial and otherwise), has played in the formation of the far right in crucial historical moments (in the 1930s, in the postwar period, and in the contemporary era) and, second, how radical and left movements have tried to connect their strategies against the far right also to anti-imperial, anticolonial and anti-racist currents of emancipatory politics. As with the research for Urban Revolutions, I am pursuing these questions in relationship to urbanization and urban politics.

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Stefan Kipfer's empirical research has focused on urban politics, urbanization and planning in transnational and comparative context. In various parts of Euro-America, including the global cities Zurich, Toronto and Paris, he has researched a range of urban social movements and their geographical imaginaries. He has investigated various forms of state intervention, from urban-regional planning, public housing and public transit to economic and environmental policy. Most recently, he has moved to research the rise of right-wing populism and neo-fascism as well as emancipatory responses to these far-right tendencies and regimes. In hisresearch and my teaching, he has foregrounded the capitalist and racialized dimensions of urbanization, planning and politics.

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