This article was written on 30 Dec 2016, and is filled under Urbanities.

The Other Colombia and the Urban Form

Image of the Orteguaza River, Colombia, taken from Wikimedia Commons

Image of the Orteguaza River, Colombia, taken from Wikimedia Commons

One of the principles that has from the beginning guided the “Urbanities” corner of Feedback is that the urban form is today found everywhere. This postulate seems relatively uncontroversial. Writing in 2013, Neil Brenner included it as one of a series of assumptions underlying much contemporary work on urban questions:

[T]he geographies of urbanization, which have long been understood with reference to the densely concentrated populations and built environments of cities, are assuming new, increasingly large-scale morphologies that perforate, crosscut, and ultimately explode the erstwhile urban/rural divide. (87)

This divide has been, in many ways, crossed by the materiality of the urban form. The world is not a single, unbroken chain of cities, but no place remains untouched by urban phenomena.

I was reminded of this notion today when I was cleaning out my browser tabs and came upon a stunning series of photographs by Nadège Mazars featured in Guernica. The series is titled The Other Colombia, and it is based on the photographer’s work in Caquetá. Its aim is to represent the Colombia that is “left out, ignored,” often accessible only by mule or rowboat. “It’s still waiting for the next visit of a health brigade or the coming of a schoolteacher,” Mazars writes.

This “other Colombia” is decidedly rural:

This is the other Colombia, out of the cities far away from the decision-making centres, living in the countryside at the pace of the harvest, the rainy period and the moon cycle. It built herself on some strengthening community ties, with reciprocity and solidarity’s strength, looking at the consumer society and its middle class with desire or disgust.

I’m not interested in disputing this idea—not interested, that is, in arguing for the presence of the urban in this environment. It seems to me that invoking the rurality or urbanity of a place isn’t simply a question of description—it is also a question of mobilizing these categories to act in favor of specific political goals, for example to denounce the social marginalization that often accompanies physical distance from centers of power. That seems to be the point here.

Rather, I’m interested in the presence of rhythm at the heart of Mazars’s description. What defines Caquetá is a “pace” determined by agriculture, weather, and the moon. In itself, this description isn’t surprising—lots of analyses of the city and the country emphasize the increased speed characteristic of life in the former. But if the urban form is everywhere, then how do we explain the persistence of these other rhythms?

Maybe we don’t exactly need to explain them. Maybe their presence means simply that as long as there is life, human or not, there will have to be life beyond the capital (and beyond capital). Beyond maybes, though, I think that we definitely need to understand these slower rhythms of the countryside in combination with the other rhythms that condition everything everywhere.

And here is where photography is helpful, for any photographer who captures something real and significant in the world also captures in visual form the multiple rhythms that pulsate constantly in any situation. I look at Mazars’s photographs, and I see in them the indices of a number of rhythms—the commodity chains that send clothes around the world, handwritten correspondence and radio transmission, the spit of machine-gun fire, the peaceful experience of bathing and other forms of self-care, the meticulousness of reading in silence. Behind it all, the lurching rhythm of the history of colonialism and the boom-and-bust cycles of supply and demand that affect the production of every international commodity, from coffee to cocaine. And in front of it all, at least in a number of these photographs, the human biorhythms that we all recognize—breath, heartbeat, gait, aging…

It remains useful, I think, to talk about “urbanities,” even if the world is increasingly a complex of approximately urban spaces. But within this category, it strikes me that one way of achieving more precision is to talk about the relative speed at which any given phenomenon takes place.

“Haunted by rhythm”—Mallarmé’s little phrase describes well a reality inscribed in every situation.

(Source cited: Neil Brenner, “Theses on Urbanization,” Public Culture 25.1 (2013): 85-114.)

One Comment

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