The promising exponential impact of this 700 pages book has just started. Since its public release in November 2007 at the headquarters of the self-managed publishing house Traficantes de Suenos, dozens of well attended public presentations of the book have taken place around different sites of Spain. Also reviews of the book have appeared in national newspapers such as El Pais o Público, on top of the different activist publications (e.g. Diagonal and Eutsi).
The uniqueness of this bright orange book resides not only in being one of the first serious engagements with the contemporary transformations in Madrid. The exceptionality of this effort is due to the rigorous research behind it, as well as its distinctive authorship and mode of production. In regards to the exhaustiveness, the book is the product of a two year interdisciplinary research project engaging this emerging global city from different angles. Complex metropolitan realities are portrayed from fields we could frame as Economic Geography and Political Economy, Anthropology as well as Cultural Studies. The data collection is exceptional both in terms of its quantity and its reliable sources. As such, it becomes an indispensable reference book: not only for learning more about the current and future transformations of the Spanish capital but also about other metropolitan cases. It is a must to read for all of those interested in urban territories, highly recommended for all publics.
As to its other unique trait —how it was produced—, it is important to mention that more than 20 people, including architects, geographers, sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists as well as many without disciplinary affiliation, participated in this effort. Such a collective enterprise is blatant when looking at the authors of the book, signed by Observatorio Metropolitano. All of these experts are actively engaged in different activist projects and social movements. The initiative originally emerges as a civil society response to the candidacy of Madrid for the Olympic games. A serious study about this ‘event’ was necessary in order to announce the consequences of the upcoming urban restructuring. The project though, surpassed that initial focus to work on the larger question of how global processes are transforming the city. A bigger group was invited to collaborate in the project, opening the participation to more activists ‘territorially’ (locally) involved in social struggles and engaged in analytical reflections about the current moment. After a series of self-education seminars, and the formation of working groups, the research project took shape ending with a series of public presentations and internal meetings where the final drafts of each book section were presented, with the goal of receiving feedback from the general public as well as colleagues.
Despite not having any funding support, the book was finally published and released. We had the chance to attend one of the public presentations in Madrid. It was at one of the most emblematic cultural institutions of the city, Circulo de Bellas Artes, right in downtown Madrid with all the pedigree of those high-culture buildings. More than a hundred people filled the room presided by two researchers from the Observatorio Metropolitano and one famous academic figure. Though we admittedly arrived late, we were able to catch a key point from the first intervention by Carolina del Olmo about the notion of the book as a tool, furthering exploring their goal of combining research and politics.
Secondly, Manuel Delgado, Anthropology professor at Universidad de Barcelona, after pondering the excellences of the book, situating it in line with similar works about the changing cities of Barcelona and Bilbao, ended his intervention with a theoretical/methodological question. He wanted to know how this city being planned by and for the ones who dominate was being accepted and made familiar by those dominated. Without intending that the book needed to include everything, he missed a section about the everyday life of that ‘mass’ of people that were living with a hegemonic common sense in the Gramscian understanding: a look at the urban itineraries of those actually living and ‘believing’ Madrid as the publicized great global city, starting from the very moment of a porras-based breakfast at the bar. In order to capture those hegemonic constructions, a study more attentive to practices and the micro level was necessary, according to Delgado.
Finally, Emmanuel Rodriguez, cleverly answered to that challenging query by questioning his presupposed clear cut distinction between the dominating and the dominated ones, appealing to the complex and fragmentary reality of the growing city. He shared amazing findings on the unnoticed changes currently happening in the city, insisting in the urgency to look at those macro processes restructuring the city. The anthropologist insisted in the necessity of the micro, the everyday, in order to apprehend how the city that is being planned from above is lived, reinvented, ignored, subverted from below.
The discussions become polarized as a methodological clash between the macro and the micro. However, the book actually includes both approaches, a fact at times ignored during the discussion by not referring to those chapters working from the micro. It is true that those chapters were not focused on the ‘norm’ (or the ‘mass’), those inhabiting the hegemonic common sense, -Delgado’s main concern-, but centered on sub-cultures and immigrant neighborhoods.
However, despite the lively and at times, seemingly unproductive, discussion, we would like to recuperate a point that emerges from a reflection of mine in situ, (although not well articulated in our intervention to the audience after a long day of baby duties and research work). That is, the politics of knowledge production.
Our point, learned in experiences of militant research as well as methodological debates during a PhD in Anthropology, relates to the kind of political action that results from both, the sort of methodology being used and the nature of the object being studied. Very briefly and intuitively put, macro analyses of major political-economic processes, besides its unquestionable relevance in order to understand reality, constitute great political tools. This kind of data can appear more objective and sharable, as such, findings are easier to communicate and circulate. This allows one to call institutional actors as well as public opinion into question through means such as court cases, mainstream media, and mass campaigns. Normally, this kind of research is empirical sounding, with a sociological touch and filled with statistical data. Examples of this kind of research by social movements are numerous and actually quite successful in their campaigns, such as all kinds of watchdog-based projects (Observatori del Deute en la Globalització, Corporate Europe Observatory, CorpWatch). The risk of this approach though is the possibility to generate a paralyzing kind of knowledge. By providing such overarching presentations of those macro processes, a strong sense of inevitability seems to be inscribed in those producing and receiving the information. What kind of political agencies arise from this research approach? On the one hand, the power of the data provides indispensable and strategic utensils to put together solid political campaigns supported by empirical argumentations. However, that macro point of departure not only may lose some of those mini-realities that fractalize the one reality of the city; but, might additionally convey a sense of impotence.
Other research strategies could help out in that regards. By attending to the micro and to everyday life, by speaking in first person, and capturing mundane conversations, the research material can connect directly with people’s experiences allowing for mutual recognition and the discovery of previously unthinkable combinations/possibilities. When the Situationists described the city through their unconventional wanderings, the monolithic rhythm of ‘metro-bureau-do do’ was broken. The findings were suggestive of other forms of inhabiting the city, provoking the imagination to reinvent yourself and create a new/other sense of collectivity. Also, by engaging methodologies that acknowledge the limits of the observer, or better, that embrace the incompleteness of the data, cheering situated objectivity and assuming the unfeasibility of capturing the whole picture, other kinds of political possibilities may be opened. The politics of fueling the imagination, a constituent imagination aiming at processes of re-subjectification and generation of solidarities with others, producing mutual resonances, collective imaginaries, and ultimately, organized interventions. A case in point of this kind of research is the work by Precarias a la Deriva, quite successful in this politics of subjectification, creating resonances and unusual alliances at the moment of addressing the common question of precarity from different specificities. However, the level of impact at the public level, in terms of mass media, government policies or even identifying targets, of these kinds of studies might be minimal.
Our point then, regardless of whether this sounds like the introduction to a contest of methods, is that both approaches are equally necessary and complementary for solid political organizing. Rather than cheering for one in particular, our argument calls to recognize and be aware of the specificity of each approach, emphasizing the different politics embodied in each of them. For that reason, there will be political projects that will need from one approach more than the other and vice versa. In the case of the work by el Observatorio Metropolitano, the great amount of data gathered at the macro level responds to the urgency of understanding the city of “power” in the face of the upcoming Olympic games and other major global restructuring episodes. Strategically, the choice of this approach makes total sense. Nonetheless, one of the exceptionalities of Madrid: ¿la suma de todos? is the attempt to actually bring together both modes of research and both modes of politics within the same project.