Review: ‘Imagining the Modern City’ by James Donald

Reviewed by Guy Davidson

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The modern and postmodern city would appear to be well-mapped domains in recent cultural studies, cultural geography, and social theory. For the prospective student of the city of the last one hundred and fifty years, in both its general and its particular modalities, there is now available a wealth of scholarly argument about the city’s geopolitical significance, its relation to questions of identity and community, its creation of new forms of perception, and its productive role in the contemporary spatialisation of social relations. In this new book, James Donald admits occasionally to an anxiety over the potential for redundancy, but his writing is overall characterised by a justified confidence in the originality of his argument.

The novel and productive approach Donald offers here stems from his claim that “the imagination” underlies, indeed produces, the experience and understanding of the modern city. Donald’s particular definition and use of the imagination is set forth in a few crucial, theoretically dense pages in his introductory chapter, in which he synthesises the arguments of Georg Simmel, Henri Lefevbre, and Michel de Certeau on the interplay of the city and subjectivity, the work of Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Zizek on the “spectral” nature of our everyday reality, and Cornelius Castoriadis’ theorisation of the social imaginary, as well as phenomenological and psychoanalytic perspectives on the operations of mental life. In modernity and postmodernity, Donald states, taking his cue here from some comments by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, “there is no possibility of defining clear-cut boundaries between reality and imagination” (17): our experience of the real – specifically, the real of the city – is always imagined, or, to use another of Vattimo’s terms, “poetic”.

In arguing that the modern city is always imagined, Donald means something more than the familiar claim that the city is always mediated by metaphor and symbolisation (that the city is a text). Imagination, as Donald uses the concept, also includes the sense in which inhabitants of the modern metropolis mentally act to make meaning out of their environment, the ways in which they do not simply perceive urban space on the basis of some pre-existing ideological script, but also conceive it: imagination “is always a creative but constrained interchange between the subjective and the social” (18). While the imagination is to some extent directed by current ideological dispensations, then, because it is creative and can project “possibilities of how things might be” (18), it also contains the seeds of alternative politics, alternative ethics. As Donald states in his conclusion to this important section of his argument: “Imagination is not limited to the mimesis of images sanctioned by the Law. Imagination is inherently ethical insofar as it always operates in the register of as if: as if I were another, as if things could be otherwise” (19).

Imagination, for Donald, is both interstitial and foundational. It designates the intersection – indeed, the potentially politically productive “transgression” – of the psychic and the social (19); and it also precedes any distinction between illusion and reality, or fiction and truth: “We do not just read the city, we negotiate the reality of cities by imagining ‘the city’. … It is imagination which produces reality as it exists” (18). The term is obviously made to do a great deal of conceptual work, and questions might be raised about whether “the imagination” becomes too elastic or even diffuse; but the book’s subsequent wide-ranging analysis amply justifies the multifaceted definition of the imagination given in these introductory pages.

The book’s organising “poetic” principle also underwrites its own form. The conception of the imagination as a movement between the subjective and the social is paralleled in the inclusion of personal anecdote, memory and opinion in the larger argument. This enfolding of the personal with the analytical is one of the book’s pleasures and one of its strengths. In contrast to some other personally inflected cultural studies writing, in which the inclusion of the writer’s experience can be superfluous or nugatory, Donald’s judicious relation of his experiences of his home city, London, and elsewhere, is motivated by the terms of his argument and also enables him to move beyond the abstractions and idealisms of some city theory. Rather than an attempt to comprehensively define modern urbanity, Imagining the Modern City is presented as “a series of improvisations on the possibility that the category of the city may illuminate some topics entailed by the contentious notion of modernity” (x). The characterisation of the book’s mode as “improvisational,” implying an only loosely connected series of meditations, perhaps overstates the case, however. For if Imagining the Modern City is exemplary in its eschewal of theoretical rigidity and totalisation, it is nonetheless driven by its own internal logic, moving from an account of some of the important ways in which the city has been imagined in the recent past of modernity to a discussion of the ways in which it could be imagined: a discussion, that is, of the possible dimensions of an ethics of urbanity which was forecast in the opening chapter’s definition of the potential and uses of the imaginative capacity.

Donald’s presentations of the ways in which the city has been imagined are uniformly arresting and his command of the range of diverse discursive materials invoked to support his various theses is impressive. In the course of the book, incisive analyses are offered of – to name just a few examples – the writings of Friedrich Engels, Le Corbusier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, O.Henry, and Alfred Loos, the art of Paul Citröen, and the photographs of Charles Marville. Compelling readings of novels (Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) and films (Henry Cornelius’ Passport to Pimlico and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) orient Donald’s discussions of the imagination of urban space and urban ethics respectively. Donald’s treatment of film is particularly suggestive. A detailed consideration of the mutually constitutive “epistemological poetics of the city and the cinema” (187), exemplified in readings of the early twentieth-century “city symphonies” of Walter Ruttmann and Dziga Vertov, forms a kind of argumentative pivot. The perceptual innovations offered by the cinema figure as privileged exemplification of the imaginative and creative possibilities of city dwelling.

In his Afterword, Donald proposes the cinema and the city as productive alternatives to the modes of experience associated with television and the suburb – that favourite topic of theorists of postmodernism. Although he acknowledges that “sociologically, cinema and the city are now less important than television and the suburb” (186), Donald insists on the political value of “thinking the city through the cinema” (187). While television, on Donald’s account, “enacts presence and sameness,” cinema constitutes “the different space, the space of difference” (187); the disorientations and redirections offered by the experience of cinema open up the space of possibility, the space of “as if” which is the book’s favoured matrix of the political.

Also important for Donald’s organising concern with the freedoms and responsibilities of city life is his account of the urban uncanny which he unfolds across the first half of the book. The idealised city of urban reformers and planners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – designated by Donald “the city of light” or (following de Certeau) “the concept city” – is juxtaposed with the haunted, labyrinthine city – characterised by “myth, suspicion, tyranny and … the irrational” (73) – described by poets and novelists and depicted by artists, not to mention experienced every day by its less exalted inhabitants. The urban uncanny, set forth most familiarly for readers of modern city theory by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, is Donald claims, the effect of the “disquieting disjunction between the city as object of government and the city as frame of mind” (73). A disjunction, but also a connection: “The uncanny … indicates not only the split, but also the relationship between Weber’s modernity of rationality, bureaucracy and disenchantment, and Baudelaire’s modernité of le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent” (72). The urban uncanny, Donald persuasively argues, is an unintended and unexpected consequence of the making or remaking of modern cities. The modern subjectivity produced in the new urban environments, which internalises “the landscape, rhythms and dynamism of the city,” ensures “the impossibility of governmentalist attempts to manage and regulate potentially unruly populations by reorganising and regulating space”: “Whenever modernisers have sought to impose the rationality of the ‘concept city’ on urban life, flâneurs, artists and the rest of us have systematically re-enchanted their creations: as comic parade, as sexual display, as hellish dream-world, or simply as home” (51).

The imaginative powers of the subject may seem here to be posited simply as resistance against the rationalising, disciplinary power of the state. But Donald’s view of the interrelations of the city and the subject is in fact considerably more nuanced. The labyrinthine city which Donald opposes to the city of light is not, after all, just a space of subversive play or of community-making or of self-making, but also one of dangers and obscurities, “suspicion” and “tyranny.” In his discussions of the practicalities of citizenship and city living which form the second half of the book, Donald insists always on accounting for “the aggression and anxiety” and the “violence and paranoia” which are integral to the urban experience (121, 138). Against the fantasies of the “transparent” city which subtend the discourse of not only zealous reformers of the past but also many theorists of urbanity today, Donald argues for an urban planning and an urban ethics which recognises and allows for the opacity and flawedness of the social and social actors. Donald’s final chapter on ethics, “On Noisy Neighbours” suggests that a pragmatic ethic of respect “can make the violence of living together manageable” (167). The detail and rigour of his writing here and previously renders the suggestion compelling.

Imagining the Modern City is an illuminating and often exhilirating contribution to contemporary scholarship on the city. It is also very handsomely produced. Its format, which is slightly largely than the standard academic text, makes it a trifle unwieldy, but has the considerable benefit of enhancing the effect of the many well-chosen images – photographs, artworks and film stills – which illustrate the argument.


Guy Davidson, English Studies Program, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.

James Donald is professor of communications and cultural studies at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. Imagining the Modern City was published by the University of Minnesota Press in November 1999.

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