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The Non-Rational City


A.G. Krishna Menon

REAL CITIES: MODERNITY, SPACE AND THE PHANTASMAGORIAS OF CITY LIFE
By Steve Pile
Sage Publications, London, 2005, pp. 216, £21.99

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

City dwellers, by and large, think of their environment in material terms: streets and traffic, buildings they live and go to work in or use for entertainment; infrastructure services (or the lack of them) that support urban living, parks and other public spaces. These are the tangible, ‘rational’ components of the city, whether planned or unplanned, with which they relate on a daily basis. Consequently, much of what is written about cities in planning documents and the media, refer to the city in material terms. The subject of this book however, is heterodox: it examines the ‘non-rational’ in modern city life. It argues that the imaginary, the fantastic, the emotional—the eponymous phantasmagoria—are equally important in defining city life and must become part of the real politics of the city.   The importance of the ‘non-rational’ in city planning is not as strange or unorthodox an idea as may appear in the first instance. Utopian proposals based on social and cultural imperatives have made important contributions to the development of the ‘rational’ city in the history of urban planning. Even an early urban theorist of the Chicago School, Robert Park, defined the city as a ‘state of mind’. In fact, one of the valuable contributions of Pile’s book is the extensive references the author has collated from the fields of psychology, critical theory, literature, cinema, psychogeography and sociology, which have examined the city in a ‘non-rational’ light. While city plans are ‘rational’ documents, their underlying ideas are often ‘non-rational’; therefore, the ‘non-rational’ becomes as important as the ‘rational’ in evaluating city life.   We are, in fact, dealing with the ‘non-rational’ aspects of the city all the time. For example, we ‘feel’ different in Varanasi and Mumbai, and even in different parts of the same city, like Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad) and New Delhi. This difference does have something to do with the built form and infrastructure of these cities, or parts of cities—their ‘rational’ elements—but it is also experienced in the way people live their lives; in their culture and customs, how they treat strangers, their prejudices and indifferences, all of which constitute the ‘non-rational’ characteristics of urbanism. Pile’s book, however, looks beyond these commonplace experiences to explore deeper emotional terrains by examining the “dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts”, present in the subconscience of city-dwellers.   Pile’s approach can be described as psychogeographical; it blends an appreciation ...


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