Book review: “New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times” by AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse

Alexandra Smorodiniva
6 min readJan 18, 2020

What do we mean by a “good book”? When I am advised to read a book in the non-fiction or science-fiction genre, the reason for the recommendation is to cover the answer to a question of interest or an unexpectedly interesting point of view on a problem. Talking about such books, we estimate them for the knowledge that they shared with us. However, I appreciate other books. Those that do not give answers, but are able to inquire questions that are able to arouse an aspiration for knowledge of other worlds outside the contemporary ambient reality. If particular books giving the answers, they are similar to the instructions for use, at the same time, the question-books are like bridges spilled to other levels of reality perception. Such a question is a book by AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse “New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times”

It differs from classical books about urban theory in that it does not offer concrete paths that must be taken in order to redraw the Global South and East, making them “correct”. Authors, who claiming absolute knowledge differ from Simone and Pieterse only in the set of stereotypes that they take for objective reality. The book “New Urban Worlds”, in turn, discusses the world in terms of assemblage theory. Therefore, every detail of the urban space seems to the authors to be valuable and not worthy of oblivion. This is where the first important re-description phenomenon for the book comes from. The authors resort to “re-description” not only regarding to urban spaces, they constantly create shifts in the subjective perception of reader by describing things, facts and phenomena from an unusual for us position. This creates in the process of reading an almost material feeling of the lack of objectivity of our feelings of world around. You feel locked inside visualization invented by the your brain, unable to be an outside observer. As a result, we distrust in legitimacy of our understanding of the reality and begin to suspect how absurd the ambitions of certain authorities or ourselves are regarding the “diagnosis” of entire worlds and the communities that inhabit them.

Also, the term “re-description” is a passage in the “rabbit hole” and how deep it is, we do not know [1]. The book hints that it can be infinite. The point is that both the whole city and the spaces in it are not limited only by the capabilities and properties that we see and use. By their meanings, they are infinitely deep and should be continuously investigated and subjected to changes.

These changes do not always lead to a qualitative leap or continuous development, as we are accustomed to believe. The Red Queen effect is in act here: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place” [2]. The problem now lies in the fact that we are trying to “treat” the cities of the Global South and East with classical urban techniques, expecting them to repeat the path already passed by the Western world. But the fact is that this world does not stand at a crossroads and have no access to an imaginary about alternative urban futures [3], it falls into the “rabbit hole”, not understanding how to maneuver in flight and what it will lead to.

The concepts of “resonance” and “secretion” describe the world as a non-linear structure, a rhizome. The paradigm in which we exist seems to be a complex interwoven non-hierarchical structure with equivalent components. Some of them are hidden, some are on the surface, but often we are unable to find a correlation between the overall picture and those small stories that we do not attach importance to. In addition, this system is dynamic. Connections can disappear, interconnect in different ways, change their meanings, create a new layers, virtual realities and hidden illegal influences of unexpectedly emerging actors can be added.

Asking a question of choosing a research and practical method, the authors ask the same questions that poses before us by book of the Strugatsky brothers “It is difficult to be a God” Is it possible to invade in other worlds and rebuild them as a more advanced society? Is it necessary to play by the rules of this world, making delicate interventions? And if this world is unfair and cruel? Should we rebel and fight against it or apply the methods of tactical urbanism and make a delicate transformations? Is it right to completely redraw the South and East by the standards of the West, dragging them in an accelerated mode along the path traveled or do you need to give them the freedom to develop in their own way? The authors partially give an answer, speaking of the incorrect development of territories made by the city reconstruction methods and the development of new areas. However, they are not abandoning global trends in green building and the smart city concept.

The existence of another is not an unacceptable scandal anymore. And cities are unpredictable and unique like a molecule of snowflakes. Therefore, cities are laboratory sites, platforms for experiments, complex independent organisms in the hands of urbanists, politicians, public moving and shadow structures, which are also part of this whole. All components individually produce their seemingly scattered and insignificant stories, but they all participate in the creation of mega-structures of the Global city.

“All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.”[4] Cities are already hybrids in some way. The pregnancy has changed and they are ready to mutate with it. Forms and spaces no longer correspond to the changed multilevel reality; they are still the spokesmen of the ideas of a bygone era. This book takes the first cautious step. It provides tools for describing a new reality and a new world in which we all have to live very soon, or maybe already right now. The book casually mentions speculative design as a tool for generating the future.

Speculative design is free from the “meager limits of nature”[5]. As virtual reality seeps off-line, influencing on a much larger scale than it might seem at first glance. In similar way visionary practices can seep into the real world, spurring its mutations, creating hybrid spaces. In addition, speculative design is able to prevent the development of unwanted scenarios by its impact on the paradigm of thinking.

Simone is a sociologist and has explored a lot of the cities of the Global South. He considers them as examples of everyday resistance to inappropriate intrusions into the worlds of these communities. His professional interest is clearly seen in a reverent attitude to stories and an unusual view of the market phenomena. Simone admires the markets as self-reproducing, multi-level, systems with actually hidden and obvious opportunities, interests and processes. The markets in his understanding are “machines for creating stories”, important elements of the city. Monitoring their life is the key to understanding the state, economic and socio-cultural reality of space-time.

Pieterse’s research interest lies in the sphere of urban development policies, everyday culture, the public, a radical social economy, adaptive design and adaptive management systems. The book “New Urban Worlds” contains links to numerous references to David Harvey and explicit attempts to find mechanisms for implementing the “right to the city”. Regarding the cities under consideration, this is especially relevant. Where inequality and social segregation in urban space is significant and can take strange forms. Social housing as a solution to the problem is recognized in this book as less effective. The transformation of public spaces comes to the fore. Reminds famous quote: «…Social being that determines their consciousness.”[6]

We come to the conclusion that cities are important as experimental urban laboratories, but this also raises thoughts about responsibility for the results of our experiments. For a long time, a human changed the world for himself according to his convenience, being the single agent of changes. But the time has come to recognize the degree of influence of other numerous actors and to maneuver in this stream of chaos along the road to the future.

[1] movie “The Matrix”

[2] Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”

[3] AbdouMaliq Simone, Edgar Pieterse, “New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times”

[4] Masamune Shirow “Ghost in the Shell”

[5] Nikolai Gumilev, poem “Word”

[6] Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”