- "All Good Things Come to the City":the Micropolitics of Michael J. Shapiro's The Time of the City
The first time I read Robert Dahl's Who Governs? was in graduate school, and I thought it was a fun read. It was intriguing as a way to study cities, but I really liked it as something comparable to American political fiction, the sort of atmospheric picture of the workings of power among disparate stereotypical interests that I enjoyed in works like Dashiell Hammett's Glass Key or James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit. The work Dahl and his students had done grounding their research in interviews with members of New Haven's political class in no way undercut this reading of the work; a glance at the worthies on the book's cover shows men who know their roles and never break character. But Dahl focuses too narrowly on a certain sort of political performance. Michael Shapiro's Time of the City is built on the promise inherent in studying the micropolitics of the city, the personae, performances, and bodies of those who are not authorized to stand on stages like Dahl's. The result is an exemplary combination of political theory and the study of urban politics.
Shapiro begins his observations with an appraisal of Dahl's influence: urban theory, he writes, has "remained committed to a narrow (often Tocqueville-inspired) participatory model of politics" (4). By turning to a vision of the city viewed through fiction, Shapiro emphasizes the politics that is missed by conventional pluralist approaches: the micropolitics that political science obscures. Detective fiction, films about urban breakdown, the work of Francis Bacon, all help us to see, in the place of an accountancy of authorized interest groups and institutional actors, the "struggles of marginalized people to manage their life worlds and the rhythms of moving bodies (often those that are politically disenfranchised) in, through, and out of urban spaces [that] fail to gain disciplinary recognition as aspects of politically-relevant problematics" (4). The result is an act of political theory in the spirit of its Greek roots, a refocusing of our shared vision. When introducing Machiavelli to new classes of first year students, I ask them to think about the inherent boast in the introduction to The Prince: princes can study the people, the people the prince, but Machiavelli is the actor who, traveling from valleys to mountain tops, can study both. Shapiro asks us to use many genres to see the city differently, to study the way people move and inhabit their daily lives, with the result that people, prince and politics are illuminated in a new fashion.
In Los Angeles and New York, Berlin and Hong Kong, and many other cities besides, Shapiro uses this method to draw our attention to what Jacques Rancière terms the "acts of 'subjectification' that reorder spaces and reconstitute identities and, as a result, render persons as political subjects" (72). In doing so, he covers so much territory and so many genres that a reviewer runs the risk of presenting a travelogue in place of a consideration of the central argument, and the argument here is compelling enough that it deserves better. I will focus, then, on just two of the book's "trips": to Joel Shumacher's Los Angeles, in the sometime company of Rancière, and to "gothic Philadelphia."
Mapping Los Angeles's topography is a political act in itself; at one point in the 1980s, for example, the LAPD even painted giant numbers on rooftops, transforming the city into a police grid. Shapiro's Southland appears as a "series of micro-biopolitical climates, a set of ethnic antagonisms that vary as one moves from neighborhood to neighborhood and witnesses alternative inter-ethnic hostilities" (51). In his 1993 Falling Down, Joel Shumacher sets a disintegrating individual, a white, downwardly mobile and paranoiac Michael Douglas, on a Dantesque tour through these climates; we, and Shapiro, accompany him...