polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Deciphering Simone Part 2: Method

by Hector Fernando Burga

In Part 1 of this interview the origins of Simone's work are discussed. In this part, the conversation turns to the method he deploys in his writing style.

In For a City Yet to Come you deploy a particular writing style. How did you come up with this method? A way of writing that attempts to replicate the object that you are writing about.

There are several things. In the late 70’s and early 80’s I was very close to the ItalianAutonomists. As such, I was trying to participate in a larger project, searching for ways of narrating processes through which young workers, particularly in Italy and other parts of Europe, were trying to rethink their relationship to work, the communist party and ways of representing their position and sensibilities. So I immersed myself in that kind of experimentation which in New York happened within a circle of people who were in exile from Italy and who tried to forge linkages with certain kinds of African American sensibilities on writing about cities over a long period of time. This also occurred as I became immersed in a post-structural, post-political, theoretical framework. I did a lot of experimentation in writing with different groups of people, particularly in the use of writing as a way of interweaving very different kinds of situations, geographical locations, and types of political positions in local and global frameworks. That experience became an important resource.

Another important resource was taking consulting jobs while I lived in Africa and taught at different universities, living under the straightjacket of having to deploy a particular way of representing policy and urban issues. I was exposed to the way in which certain parameters were enforced by African higher universities and African professionals. By having discussions with students and other young researchers, who in formal convocations reiterated a kind of claustrophobic way of thinking about urban issues, and afterwards in more informal settings exhibited a whole different way of speaking about things, I began to understand the constraints. I understood why within the political exigencies of African universities emerging professionals would always have to adhere to particular kind of narrative. But I wasn’t necessarily bound to it even as a pedagogical tool in universities. With the people I have worked with, I have tried to go towards a different kind direction, a counterpoint which recognized the language of statistics, the counting, the framing, but also which tried to undo them.

For example, when I lived in Sudan, for three years I collaborated on a project with a theater school. The theater school was probably the most diverse, complicated, cosmopolitan kind of professional entity in Khartoum. It had Islamisists, communists and members from prominent Sufi families from all over. It had people from diverse backgrounds who lived together in a kind of slum, apart from the university. We spent two years going around and trying to experiment, not just documenting evidence, but intervening in a performance project and figuring out different ways of making little things happen, a kind of acupuncture in a way. This was an important experience in order to consider the kinds of issues which appear seemingly minimal and simple of urban formations. They will always remain to a large degree opaque and ephemeral, without having the pretense of being comprehensive and accurate, but their truthfulness, their ethics, come from trying to be as respectful and faithful as you can with the processes you feel are having an impact on you and on your relationships with other people.

So who is your audience, who do you write for?

Well the books and some of the journal articles that I write are academic constructions. I am aware of the kind’s criticisms, which point at how one has to be careful about the dynamics of cities in the South and their political complexities. I want to take those kinds of issues head on. I want to use my academic position as a way of re-imagining the potentialities of cities in the South but in ways that neither romanticize or celebrate what they represent. It’s hard to find a way to make these kinds of dynamics important for urban theory and urban thinking in general. I use my position to do so. Therefore my audience is basically composed of other academics and urban theorists, but there is also a whole other series of writing; working papers, documents and policy briefs. Here in Jakarta, I have written some things for the press and help people prepare briefing documents for the governor. So there are very different kinds of outputs. Its not that the topics, issues or the content is different, rather it becomes harder because I have to put it in a language that travels and could be understood.

I have found myself in the last 10 years solidly back in academia. You have to play that game. And I would like to play the game in as an interesting way as I can. In some ways I would like to have something to say to philosophers, to ethnographers, to planners, to urban engineers. I don’t pretend to successfully do it, but in some ways, I would like to.

The notion of performance is something that I have witnessed in your presentations at Berkeley. It seems to me that your writing follows a particular rhythm or music. Where does this notion of performance come from?
I was very much influenced by Sun Ra. When I came back to Chicago from Sierra Leone, I was influenced by people involved in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. In the neighborhood where I lived in Chicago you performed confluences. I also grew up in the black church to a large extent, so I am in touch with its cadences and its passion.

Credits: Image of Abdooumaliq Simone from Goldsmisth College.