Monday, October 25, 2004

Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City (Aloy)

Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City
By Jane M. Jacobs
Routledge, London and New York, 1996, xiii + 193 pp.


I summarize Jacobs’s project as follows:

1. The view that empires are a thing of the past is inaccurate and flawed. To say this does not mean that there are no centers; there are no peripheries; there are no structures of domination and subordination. This signifies that the line that separates these spatial boundaries is now messier than before. As Jacobs puts it, “the social and spatial demarcation of…uneven politics is no longer as clear as it once was.” The structures of power that constituted the “old” empires have now been challenged in the wake of diasporic settlements, new nationalisms, indigenous land right claims and so on. As the “edge” of the title Edge of Empire suggests “imperialism lives on in the present but it is also always at its ‘edge’ point”—a point that is precariously unstable or, as bell hooks puts it, “unsafe,” marking “not only a space of openness but also the very negotiation of space itself.”

2. Jacobs makes a critical departure from what she describes as “spatial rhetoric of colonial and postcolonial theory” to “real” geographies; she takes us to contemporary conflicts over space in the cities of Britain and Australia. Jacobs argues that space and place are discursive sites that are as much as important in the formation of postcolonialism as they were for colonialism.

3. Two of the four sites involve the long-running planning struggle around the redevelopment of the Bank Junction area in the City of London, and the transformation of neighborhood of Spitalfields, an inner East London neighborhood, in the form of gentrification and mega-scale development.

The contest over the redevelopment of a historic built environment in the City of London reveals that “the idea of empire” does not belong to the past. As Jacobs puts it, “Place plays an important role in the way in which memories of empire remain active” (p.40). This is seen in the efforts to preserve the historic Bank Junction area in the City of London; such efforts are also seen to preserve buildings and city scenes which memorialize the might of empire.

Spitalfields is a place marked by the processes of identity negotiation and destabilization generated by the loss of empire and subsequent migrant settlements. Inhabitants of Spitalfields negotiate their identity in a multicultural terrain where one’s entitlements and claims to a place are high. But it does not mean that with multiculturalism and diasporic landscape Spitalfields is dislodged from the nation defined by its “Englishness.” In the case of the Bengali migrants, this has worked to “domesticate (not assimilate) the Bangali settlers within an embracing Englishness” (p.101).

4. The other two sites, once located at the geographical edge of the British empire, include the city of Perth, a city where the colonial repression of Aboriginal interests in land was apparent only to resurface albeit “uncanny” as Aboriginal sacred in the secularized space of the city, and the city of Brisbane, a city actively reinventing itself through Nature and Aboriginality in the wake of tourist development.

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