Bartlebess Struggles for her Right to the City…

April 7, 2011

ABSTRACT for Right to the City symposium

If we are to claim the right to the city, as a working slogan and political ideal, as David Harvey insists in his essay, Right to the City, and if we hope to claim this right in the context of post-industrial nation-states, in the dark ubiquity of late Capitalism, and facing the rapid industrial development of what we have formerly identified as developing nations, such as China and India, what kind of urban citizen or urban collective is it that we imagine is able to grasp hold of this right? In response to Hannah Arendt’s brief essay, We Refugees, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the city today is effectively a refugee camp, and the exemplary citizen is no citizen at all, but instead a refugee, or asylum seeker. This is a figure with which we are familiar in the geopolitical situation that is Australia, but how often do we reflect on the possibility that this collective ‘we’ with which we provisionally unite ourselves as willing subjects, can also be characterised by a lack of a sense of home, identity and ethos? In this paper I plan to creatively and critically investigate such questions as the conjoined identity of city and subject (individual and collective) and the right to the city by way of an invented aesthetic figure borrowed from the American writer, Herman Melville. Her name is Bartlebess, of unknown origin and most likely sad end. She is re-gendered feminine after her masculine cousin Bartleby, the hapless scrivener, or law copyist who features in Melville’s short story, eponymously named, Bartleby. Where Harvey leaves off his inspiring essay, Right to the City, with the hope that the conjunction between subject, conceived as a broad social will or collective body politik, and city, and their mutual co-evolution, will allow them together to forge more democratic processes for urban inhabitants, I want to take hold of this glimmer of potentiality by discussing the promises and hazards of undertaking gestures of creative resistance in the midst of the repressive forces of urbanisation. The aesthetic figure of Bartlebess will help me here, for the outcome of her story remains ambiguous, and it is hard to tell how far she has succeeded or failed in her tactics of creative resistance against the impassible/impassable wall that is her city.



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