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Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice (review)

From: Rhetoric & Public Affairs
Volume 2, Number 1, Spring 1999
pp. 165-166 | 10.1353/rap.2010.0015

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Book Reviews 165 political grubbing from our chief executives, then we had better impose major structural changes. Yet the remoteness of that prospect means that the presidency will always be supremely political, both in the best and worst meanings ofthat term. Robert J. Spitzer SUNY Cortland Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice. By Bent Flyvbjerg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998: pp. xiii + 290. $45.00 cloth; $17.00 paper. Urban planning is an intersection of several kinds of politics and communication . Technical expertise meets with entrenched interest groups; demands for openness butt up against the desire of "experts" to retain control over the process; and public needs meet private demands. Rationality and Power traces the attempt of a Danish city, Aalborg, to create a "master plan" for urban redevelopment. The "Aalborg project" attempts to design a viable plan for automobile, bus, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic in the downtown area of the city. At the same time the project tries to create a livable downtown space where residential housing, retail shops, and public recreation are all accommodated. Flyvbjerg uses the history of the project to delineate the interaction of what he calls "rationality" and "power." In doing so, he weighs into the current debate about the relationship of knowledge to power. He contrasts what he characterizes as the Enlightenment's commitment to "rationality" with the realities of power politics. His central finding is that "rationality is context-dependent and that the context of rationality is power" (2). In the case of Aalborg the rationality of city planners is contrasted with the "rationalizations" presented by their opponents in the chamber of commerce, the police department and other interest groups. How one evaluates this book depends primarily on two points. First, does the reader accept the use of "narratology" as a viable method to expose the relationship of knowledge to power? Second, does one accept that the experience of a small city in Denmark can be extrapolated to wider questions of the relationship between "rationality" and power in modern or postmodern politics? If the answer to both these questions is yes, then the reader will find Flyvbjerg's project enlightening and provocative. If the answer is no, the reader is likely to reject his findings. A third possibility also exists. If rationality is context-dependent, then so is power. This suggests that, as postmodern thought would have it, power and not rationality should be the true subject of our concern. This conclusion from the text presents an even greater and more provocative task. It is here that Rationality and Power both intrigues and disappoints. Flyvbjerg delineates the relations of power among actors in Aalborg with great skill. But his own preference for rationality over power makes those willing to employ power into villains. The rhetoric of the chamber of commerce , its mobilization of support from its members, and its use of the media all 166 Rhetoric & Public Affairs appear as somehow illegitimate uses of power. Flyvbjerg argues that power is central to all political relations, but he yearns for a stable situation of equality where rationality can have free play. In many ways, he is a disappointed Utopian unwilling to accept the reality of his own conclusions. A final point: Flyvbjerg traces the plan in great detail. He makes continuous references to streets, squares, intersections, and the location of stores and other features central to the project. While a line map of downtown Aalborg is provided, the reader's understanding of the debate and conflict over the project would have been helped by more detailed maps of both the downtown area of the city and of the surrounding county. Mark S. Jendrysik University of Mississippi Feminism and the New Democracy: Re-Siting the Political. Edited by Jodi Dean. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1997; pp. ν + 274. $29.95 paper. Jodi Dean's project, re-siting the political in an era of new democracy, is part of a larger Sage publications series on philosophy and social criticism. Dean's specific goal is to "re-site" the political, "to recognize the multiple terrains and spaces producing and produced by politics" (2). Her interest is in locating the sites from which social and political groups are...