The Challenges of Urban Activism in the New Neoliberal Context
Paper in proceeding, 2014

The aim of this paper is to investigate the challenges faced by contemporary urban activism in the new neoliberal context. This typically Western context is marked by an expanding 'post-political', 'post-critical' atmosphere of consensus. In artistic practice, the 'political' and the 'critical' have been increasingly forgotten by various 'ethical turns'—which have been continually recuperated to serve the neoliberal dictate of omni-economization. Increasingly shrewd recuperation mechanisms—such as the embedding of artists and activists into gentrifying restructuring operations—have exploited the depoliticizing effects intrinsic to the most recent 'ethical turn'. Jacques Rancière's definition of the 'political' as a dissensual reconfiguration of the status quo is critical in gauging and grounding urban activism's political dimension. Further, his definition of 'democracy' justifies political challenges which might disrupt technocratic 'good governance'. To situate the most recent 'ethical turn', historical movements and tendencies within the disciplines of art, architecture and urbanism are investigated with respect to their political ambitions, utopian component and to recuperative processes which have become often instantaneous and even pre-emptive. Certain fundamental dispositions are recommended for urban activism within a pluralist approach. Rancière's definition of 'the political' provides the basis for articulating activism both conceptually and tactically while David Harvey's 'dialectical utopianism' suggests a model for integrating utopianism. Francis Alÿs' maxim of 'sometimes' illustrates the potential of the ambiguity inherent in artistic approaches. Contemporary strategies of dissensus, over-identification, oscillating and interlacing and spatialization can be effective. And, while a holistic transdisciplinary disposition is an essential compass, disciplinarity can be strategically employed. The marginal efficacy of urban activism is a structural condition and should not distract from the much greater threat of depoliticization. This threat is aggravated by the increasing synchronization of the domains, aims and interests of neoliberal capitalists, technocrats, artists, alternative practitioners and 'creatives'. To maintain a critical disposition and resist recuperation, urban activists can combine clear Rancièreian definitions of 'the political' and of 'democracy' with a sophistication of both disposition and strategy through hybridized integrations of dialectical utopianism, ambiguity, ambivalence, dissensus, over-identification, disciplinary autonomy and spatialization, taking care to focus on both the residual and the core of society.

ethical turns

the political


urban activism



Jonathan Geib

Chalmers, Architecture

critic|all: International Conference on Architectural Design & Criticism, Digital Proceedings

978-84-697-0424-0 (ISBN)

Subject Categories



Other Humanities not elsewhere specified


Political Science

Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified

Areas of Advance

Building Futures (2010-2018)



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