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Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw, editors. Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture. McGill-Queen’s University Press. vi, 306. $32.95

The signature scene in Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Goodbye Lenin! gives a stunning take on urban circulation in the globalizing city. Convalescing after months in a coma, Christiane, the protagonist Alex’s mother, wanders down from the family’s apartment to the east Berlin street, where – unaware that the wall has fallen – she watches, incredulously, as a helicopter transports the head and torso of a monumental statue of Lenin across the cityscape toward its (presumed) demolition. The scene preoccupied me as I read Circulation and the City, precisely because it evokes, in condensed and refracted ways, so many of the volume’s concerns: the architectures of memory; the passage of belief; the rhythms and tensions of urban space and time; the traces of loss; the complex promise of alternative, anterior futures – not to mention, more literally, the fall of the wall anticipating and epitomizing the vexed urban problematic today.

The essays collected by Boutros and Straw together represent an important intervention within several current intellectual debates – about the contemporary condition of the city and the circuits of urban culture, as about mobility and community more generally. The volume contributes to what John Urry has memorably termed a ‘“mobility” structure of feeling’ palpable across the humanities and social sciences in the contemporary moment. The focus of this contribution, it must be [End Page 754] said, is more broad than sharp, as the volume’s title will imply. The logic of soft conjunction found there fairly anticipates a collection in which the link between the title’s key concepts can sometimes seem underdetermined or eclectic; notwithstanding the introduction’s careful attempt to develop an overarching theoretical framework, these essays offer less a sustained, multifaceted argument than a distinct sequence of reflections on urban circuitry. Still, the scope of issues addressed is both provocative and compelling. Organized around three rubrics – ‘The Mobile City,’ ‘City Traffic,’ and ‘City Circuits’ – the volume advances a series of engaging approaches to questions of circulation, the city, and their interrelation, by way of topics that include linguistic flux, smart dust, and the ‘creative city’ (in the first section); deportation politics, urban faith, subway busking, and rhythmanalysis (in the second section); and second-hand commodities, department stores, flâneurie, and urban-core revivalism (in the final section). The diversity and freshness of insights on offer across these essays more than make up for any centrifugal tendencies the volume may exhibit.

The strongest pieces in the collection – Jenny Burman’s sharp take on deportation and its resistances in present-day Montréal, for instance, or Amanda Boetzkes’s searching analysis of ephemeral performance at Montréal’s Lionel Groulx metro station, or tobias c. van Veen’s audacious unfolding of the rhythmanalytical method of Henri Lefèbvre – couple interpretive specificity and precision with theoretical rigor and panache; they tend to reckon as well the intimate inextricability of the volume’s two key concepts, enabling readers to understand the city not just as a scene of circulation but also as a property, a value, a condition endlessly circulating in contemporary life. Will Straw’s superb contribution to the volume, ‘Spectacles of Waste,’ is exemplary in all these respects. Following an incisive précis of the rise of mobility studies and the importance of urbanity within it, the essay advances a breathtaking account of the afterlives of outmoded commodities in thrift stores, pawnshops, and refuse emporia. Straw offers a commanding analysis of residual modes of value – one with the power to illuminate unexpected rhythms in commodity circulation and to reckon the ways in which ephemeral or even abjected things come to materialize and mobilize city space and time. At stake is a kind of constellation-mobile: the coexistence, whether in motion along or suspended within urban circuitry, of discontinuous, even incommensurate stylistic and aesthetic forms and temporalities. The essay is the very best I have read in the past year (and even longer). On its strength alone – but also because of the stimulating diversity of insight across the volume – Circulation and the City will...