The City Smells of Decay

Editor’s Note

Sara Bissen

Editor in Chief, The Ruralist Body, United States of America

The city smells of decay. Not by chance, politics is dead. If politics is dead, it is because our words have become empty. As if we no longer inhabit them. As if they are no longer filled with soil.

This issue of the Journal of Biourbanism is rural. Misheld in a common misuse of the word, one arrives at the threshold of rurality. The rural becomes what the urban looks for—something that happens to look less urban than what the urban has become. A rural aesthetic moves in, disguised, and ushered in by an urban social hegemony (in the sense used by Elias, 2000 [1939], pp. 430–432). Urban society is intent to function independently of the rural. This presupposes an urban imaginary of the rural that is disconnected and made to look like the urban. Not by chance, and distanced because of this, the rural inhabits a place that is untouchable, yet not unreal.

A society of absence, and with agency denied (since Marx, 1999 [1852], ch. VII), the rural is flattened to a so-called “nature,” a periphery, a remote site of production— parts of a dominant urban system.

Yet, the rural in the urban does not follow the same logic as the urban. The social processes of rurality are a threat to the socio-economic reproduction of the city and the repulsive urbanization that drives the city. Nor, does the rural rest wholely in the urban’s foundation. The rural is not the anti-urban. Rather, the rural is opposite of politics, as we now know politics to be.

Generation after generation—built on trust—we find that we trust less. Beyond the doors of rurality, the rural stands hand in hand with forms of peasantry—another kind of “disappearing remainder” of society that is dismissed for its aberrant quality and so is labeled “‘not existing historically speaking’” (Shanin, 1966, p. 15). The genesis of urban theory and practice became a testament of rural disappearance in its inattention to origin.

One way out of the death of politics we see today is tied to the rural as a site of resistance. To reside in the logic of the urban is to be limited to the urban horizon. In this issue, the rural holds a view of the urban. When we look at the urban from this point of view, we find decay.

The urban, always full—of many individuals, of images, and full of clean capital. Full of order, full of reason. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn writes, “we never did have any empty [author’s emphasis] prisons, merely prisons which were full or prisons which were very, very overcrowded” (Solzhenitsyn, 1973, p. 92). If one side of urban decay is the slow process of undoing a sense of place, then that slow process is happening faster. Continuing, Solzhenitsyn says that “in the removal of millions and in the populating of Gulag, consistent, cold-blooded planning and never-weakening persistence were at work” (ibidem).

The financialization of post-industrialism is dead space held in suspension—like a wrecking ball. Decay may be a form of how capitalism preserves itself, but to what extent does decay really remain under capitalist control? A contemporary fetishization of ephemerality gets lost in decay as a different reality takes root in the absence of dominant control. We can then forget that our whole mind and body is taught to hold like a sieve (Bradbury, 1953, p. 78). In its limited horizon, the urban paves the way for a mordant subsumption of social processes to take place (see Marx’s definition of the real subsumption, of not only labor but of social life, under capital; Marx, 1993 [1939], Notebook VII; Marx, 2010, pp. 93–121). It is the urban for the sake of the urban—and “that’s the dirty part” (Bradbury, 1953, p. 86).

Seeds that have not been taken in by subsumption are seeds of rurality held in the decay. Still standing, but not left alone to rot. Urban through design unstrategically reproduces itself to feed off space that is already dead—sometimes the appearance of a pulse can be deceiving. In decay there is more strategy, there is life and soil—there is rurality. Decay looks far away.

In “Newark,” artist Cesar Melgar’s photographic work lays bare the death of the neighborhood, identifying where we are, and what passage we are going through. Newark does not fit the system, but the logic of urban planning does. Demolition by decay, demolition by bulldozers. With Newark as his home, Melgar writes, “the neighborhood as we’ve known it is gone”—and it is not by chance that we see the logic that plans Newark to be the same logic of displacement, disappearance, dissimulation, and massacre elsewhere (see the tragedy of the state killing of Cizre, the shrouded administrative expropriation of Diyarbakır villages and its overt siege; the razing and rebuilding of Grozny; the comedy of Area del Futuro in Bologna; the foundation of Seaside, Florida and of Cayalá, Guatemala City). Coercion is multiplied—because “political genius lies in extracting success even from the people’s ruin” (Solzhenitsyn, 1973, p. 343). What Solzhenitsyn could not yet see was the tightening of a power beyond what he saw. Cuts are now within. At the core of the urban system, there is a connection between corruption and corrosion, and decay and decadence.

As seen until now, the urban is a sharpened and specialized tool of subsumption that is used in its own process of social hegemony. This tool is acidic. The rural is complex and pushes against the urban reduction. The urban is complicated, but it is not complex. Attempting to make the urban more complex is just an attempt to make it more tolerable. The rural is capable of dealing with complexity. The urban that merely appears complex cannot deal with complexity. Rural depth of time and unrestrained senses witness this. Capital is about an economy of scarcity. Bios is not.

Instead of adjusting to a fake logic, the life of ruins emerges from the palpable remains of rurality.

Undeniably, the rural and urban decay—that is, the bios that exists inside our system, is increasingly being chased by a system that is anti-bios. Nevertheless, rural keeps collapsing distance with bios. Dirt is touchable by hand. Decay is the socio-physical reaction to the acidic dissolve caused by such a dominant urban system. The rural, seen or unseen, is the power to stay because it is a body of its own and not a fragment of dominance. Turns out, then, that peripheries are cores because voids are centers (Alexander, 2002, pp. 222–225). The place where we think politics is not, is exactly where it lives.

Robert Neuwirth goes beyond what academia has become. Waste ground as a human construct is questioned in “1067 Pacific St., Brooklyn: In the Ruderal City.” The scarred soil of a vacant lot in Brooklyn quietly challenges the deadening convergence of cities. In an ability to cross horizons, Neuwirth gets right what urban thought and practice often get wrong. As author of two acute works on squatting and the informal economy, from Rio de Janeiro to Mumbai, Neuwirth points us to a rurality that has the power to stay. In Brooklyn, the weeds are pushing back and the urban must adjust. Neuwirth calls this churn ruderal. Life in the ruderal city keeps us from losing ourselves.

Marco Casagrande fills ruins with flesh in “From Urban Acupuncture to the Third Generation City.” Built on nothing but rumors, the official city cracks. Casagrande, a contaminating artist and architect, trespasses the limits of artificial urban walls. Roles change. The seeds of the unofficial city stay in soil and body until the official city sees that part of itself. In that, memory comes to the surface. Treasure Hill of Taipei, to name one place, breaks through the official urban control to touch reality.

Nikos A. Salingaros discusses what the rise of science and mass industrialization has led us to in “The ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ and the Built Environment.” As a mathematician and physicist, Salingaros illuminates the paradox of how the embrace of progress erodes our lives. The loss of difference paves way for the domination and destruction of people. Salingaros unravels the logic of top-down control to uncover a structure of institutional dominance of the built environment, and the subtle marks of coercion that disconnect us from the past. In the end, humanity follows a rising process of restraint in the presence of forced monotony.

Robin Monotti Graziadei brings to the surface the kind of value that the distance of time gives us in “The Space City Method.” Historical in content, Monotti Graziadei writes about Soviet architecture inspired by Suprematism. From the architect’s passionated perspective, Monotti Graziadei illustrates an urban eclipse. The urban does not integrate but dominates. Here, rurality is a symbol to show the reality of what modernity has done to the rural. There are signatures of the urban on the rural, but if manifested in form only, then the pigment is certain to fade. The continued attempt to conquer rurality—reproduced and superimposed on our present and future based on artistic abstraction—is seen in the zoning of waste land by and for the benefit of motorways and financial institutions, rather than by and for people.

Samantha Clements reveals a shallowness of resiliency that is mired by its own design in “The Abandoned Periphery: Told in a Series of Vignettes.” Clements, an urbanist in the field of emergency management, utilizes the frame of triage to assess natural and man-made disasters, from Hurricane Sandy in New York City to the poisoning of Flint. The atomized city denies and fails to discern the reality from the theatre. Nearsighted politicians do not give what is needed, but take what they need. Selection never produces an ocean wave. Clements reminds us not only that intention has consequences, but that design is never innocent.

Massimo Marra speaks to modernity’s blemishes in “The City is a Bitch: The Dematerialization of the Urban.” Originating from the dark, back streets of the Neapolitan chaos, Marra enters as “the devil into the procession.” The body is residual, but untamed—this body is rural. Marra, a hermeneut of Western esotericism, tells of the conflictual alchemy of capital that has come to dematerialize the whole reality. As part of its program, Enlightenment has severed the senses to make them incapable of perceiving. The invisible is what has been thrown away for Enlightenment to enter. Doors are made to open, and doors are made to close.


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Shanin, T. (1966, March). The peasantry as a political factor. The Sociological Review, 14, 5–27. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.1966.tb01148.x

Solzhenitsyn, A. I. (1973). The Gulag archipelago 1918–1956: An experiment in literary investigation I–II. (T. P. Whitney, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

All Issue Photography Copyright 2016 Cesar Melgar

Bissen, S. (2016). Editor’s Note. Journal of Biourbanism, 4(1&2/2015), 7−11.