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Urban Culture: Definition and Contextualization

Article · May 2016

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Francesco Bolzonella
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Urban Culture: Definition and Contextualization
From systemic acknowledgement to the perception of its complexity

Course: Introduction to Cultural Geography, Panteion University - Athens, GR.


Francesco Bolzonella, May 2016.

Abstract: As the subtitle suggests, the essay is divided into two main thematic parts, which are related to
each other.
The definition of urban culture begins taking into account, in a macro perspective, capitalism as an ordering
economic logic of space in western cities and referring to how each city is a living system of cultural
reproduction.
In the first part, the systemic logic of determination that undergoes the reproduction of urban culture is
stressed. The meaning of “culture” is rediscovered in order to bring attention to the spatial attributes of its
existence, and directly related to how urban culture works.
The main examples used are: First, role of Music and its capability to mediate identity and space, creating a
sense of place from which culture is rooted, both being a modality of transmission between the related
culture and creation of space, and, in reply, as an element of connection capable of evoking and reminding
listeners (outsiders) of the insights of the related urban culture; Second, the attributes of the Street as
example of “spatialization” (Lefebvre), both as field of power stratification and as space of the possible
reformulation of power itself.
In the second part of this essay, through a presentation of W. Benjamin’s flaneurie , the complex nature of
perception will be highlighted, linked to how the nature of urban culture manifest itself. A micro sociological
approach of inquiry will be demonstrated to be the more suitable, as a response to how urban culture can
be truly understood.
“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”- (W. Churchill)

The literal concept of “urban culture” is broadly referred to as the culture of towns and cities, or, as
any of the behavioral patterns of the various types of cities and urban areas, both past and present. It
refers to a culture placed and rooted in an urban space, a space from which the culture has
originated and manifested itself in a manner strictly related to the spatial characteristics of the
specific given urban context;
The cities themselves are not totally de-contextualized, and furthermore they cannot be exempt
from the influence of more general shaping cultural forces. In the thought of G. Simmel1, the city is
the space in which the tendencies of modernity are concentrated and enhanced in reciprocal ways,
so in which multiple variables of economic-political-cultural nature act in their full expression, due
to the fact that cities are centers of the main human activities and from where innovations take
place, so where we can easily find the inter-play of the main historical, political and economic
forces.
For the western world this is a case of capitalist influence. It has meant a common set of elements
recognizable in every western city, and the urban culture of these cities, on a macro- scale, is shaped
in between the relation of how respectively a particular geographical culture responds to its main
influences, and in reply, how capitalism, in this example, has impacted specifically in a unique way
within that cultural context.
Marx, in his analysis of capitalism, has stated that the particularity of social relations, of the ways of
commodity exchange, of production and its circulation, had specific spatial and temporal
implications for the structuring the spaces of human activities.

1
Source from -“The Metropolis and Mental Life”; Georg Simmel, 1903

1
“There is no question that the relational form of any given society is inseparable from particular
orderings (practical and imaginative) of space and time.”(Rosenberg, 2005)2
Despite sharing the common ground of capitalist influence, we can observe that every western city
has a particular form of urban culture. This suggests to us how much urban contexts, in reality, are
not just passive receptors but as well living systems within which differentiated cultural forces
accumulated in its history coexist, and from which the constellation of their interaction can be
manifested.
“Space”, as a general spatial condition, becomes “Place”, as a space charged with particular
meanings, perceivable uniqueness and reproducing specific qualities of condition3.
Lefebvre refers to this as “spatialization”, a natural process in which spatial attributes are socially
produced and in which a specific significance is charged upon them; in fact, it could be said that the
city is an “expression of a general social process in space”4 becoming a “social construction of
particular modes of representation.”5
The architecture of a city, for example, by making ‘meanings manifest as a concrete system of
places, paths and domains’ (Schulz, 1975), reflects precise political ideologies and practical aims,
manifesting how social relations are governed, how they unconsciously produce the lifestyle of the
inhabitants, and implicitly influence behavior, which, taken for granted, then becomes formalized
and socially accepted as part of a common identity.
However, spatialization is never a neutral process; since it is socially constructed. It is also
politically projected: space becomes a field of power, a field of contentions between social forces
that seek to order the production of meanings, aiming to control the institutionalization of places.
For instance, in a study conducted by M. Valverde on Toronto, she highlights the indirect impact of
law on street life, to demonstrate how spaces are “pre-structured by political and economic forces”.6
The street, usually “seen as a space of freedom, may in fact be a space that is overdetermined by
municipal regulation”7. As consequence, “many kinds of encounters have already been foreclosed
by the law and those that remain are themselves deeply regulated.”8
But we will see later how at the same time this specific form of place: the street, as part of a system,
can possibly challenge their same institutionalized attributions.
What the notion of “urban culture” should suggest to us, then, is a shaping tie between social
relations, as an outcome of political-economic-cultural variables, and space, as a context of
determination and manifestation.
The outcome is a specified cultural space, or spatial culture, which, in its systemic and dynamic
nature, becomes filled with references to the undergoing variables of determination. It could be said
that the totality of urban behaviors, values, attitudes, routines, beliefs and meanings undergo a
systemic logici of determination: a structured “whole”, in which every part is functionally related to
each other with the urban environment, since that same context has inspired those same beliefs,
values, attitudes and so on.
But before attempting an exhaustive definition of the concept of urban culture, it’s useful to go back
and rediscover the attributes of what “culture” is really about.

2
From - “Globalization Theory: A Post Mortem”; Justin Rosenberg, University of Sussex 2005.
3
Source from - “A Study of the Development, Characteristics and Uses of Open Public Spaces in Athens from 1940 to 2000”; John
N. Terzoglou, Middlesex University, 2001.
4
Idem, p.8.
5
“Walter Benjamin, Urban Studies and the Narratives of City Life”- Chapter 35, p.412. Micheal Keith. 2008
6
Barker, Joshua, 2009, “Street life”, στο City & Society, Vol. 21, no 2, p.159.
7, 9
idem.

2
Summarizing the definitions of culture from various disciplines, the common elements of their
constitution are: the collectivity, the transmission, or connectivity in some way direct or indirect,
and the characterizing patterns which are socially replicated, because they are internalized and
recognized by the members.
Within our context of analysis, it will be useful to note how the philosopher E.S. Casey (1996)
describes culture: etymologically, it meant “place tilled”, in middle English; so “to have a culture is
to inhabit a place sufficiently intensive to cultivate it, […] to be responsible for it, to respond to it”.
In fact, culture is undeniably embedded in a spatial context in order for it to be truly a living system
of elements, and if its basic constitutive part is the collectivity, the “modality” of connectivity and
reproduction of the elements is however structurally important for its definition, which contributes
to shaping the particular differentiated characteristics of one culture from another.
Taking into account the role of music as a modality of connectivity, Tagg (1981, 1) speaks about
music as an “extremely particular form of inter-human communication”9 in which the expression of
collective messages of affection are enmeshed with physical surroundings.
Music as a symbolic practice has the power to evocatively recall a place, and to “represent place”10.
In fact, S. Cohen, in her article, demonstrates how music can actually be a tool that fosters the
formation of identification with a place between members of community, and especially for
migrants and in mobility, in that situation of change in which people need to reacquire a sense of
belonging in the new physical space, “the production of place is often intensified”11 through music.
So going back to what “place” really means, it refers to experiencing the environment of cultural
identification physically, it means “embodying” a place which has the power to “reify or symbolize
social relationships”12; within this, music is a “sense embodied”13, one of those senses capable of
evoking association, by creating a linked memory between lived experience and the context.
Space is not just a reflection or a manifestation of the interplay between elements, it becomes also,
as consequence, an active practical and imaginative contour in which further developing
determinations of those same variables can take place, and will from there on.
This to say that it should not be of any surprise that the cultures around the world reflect mostly
human responses to their given spatial-historical contexts from which they have originated, What
becomes certain after this, is the fundamental existing tie between context and the cultural
reproduction of meanings, an “ambi-transitive”ii relation of constitution and reproduction
profoundly embedded in the specificity of the agents, on one side, and the structures, on the other
side.
The roles of the agents and structures of determination are not totally divisible, in this relation,
because both the spatiality and cultural elements are structured by and structure each other, in a way
in which they synthesize in synergy so as to become an evident object in a systemic unity.
By recalling the example of the street we can see how it can be inscribed within what has just been
said about the systemic logic of determination between agents and structures of the urban culture;
One of the peculiarities of the street is also that of being on the edge, of lying between the public
and the private domain and philosopher W. Goetschel talks about the street as “a space […] that can

9
Cohen Sara, 1995, “Sounding out the city: music and the sensuous production of place”, στο Transactions of the Institute of British
Geographers, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1995),p. 444.
10
Idem, p.445.
12
Idem, p.443.
13
Idem, p.438.
14
Idem, p.444.

3
(furthermore) challenge conventional boundaries between public and private”14, where those
boundaries can be “fought over, and negotiated15”. It is also naturally a public space, inevitably
subject to the multiple activities that take place in the city, so it can never be institutionalized with
its full attributes.
In the way Bourgois and Derrida put it, the street can be a source of “alternative political and
cultural possibilities”16 a transformative field in which, even though it is where power competition
is mostly reflected, it is also where power itself can be most possibly be challenged and
transformed.
In the revolt which took place in December 2008 in Athens, the primary space of revolt was the
streets17, because in every city they have the main functional role of channels of interconnection.
But in effect they became at that moment, on one hand, channels of communication that transferred
the message of revolt to other parts of the metropolis, and on the other, a place of encountering and
challenging the authority.
This leads us to recognize how the urban environment is intrinsically alive and subject to
continuous change and determination from cultural-political and economic forces, and how they are
interrelated with each other in the long run.
Part II- “Multiversal”iii Reception
The systemic logic that the reproduction of an urban culture undergoes, suggests to us how it can be
perceived mostly on a sensorial level of inquiry. This is because, as a living system, the urban
culture implies a resilient and chaotic convergence of narratives, along with traceable realities
which have accumulated over time, and by escaping patterns of categorization and moving beyond
fixed theoretical definitions. These “multi-versal” discourses affect the reception of urban culture as
a whole, the way in which we can possibly perceive it. Since these discourses are those upon which
stands the attribution of meanings and the construction of urban culture itself, they rely largely on a
inductive method and it is only through experiencing the urban context that we can begin to acquire
a complete understanding of what urban culture is made of, because those discourses are not
perceivable as a unity due to their entrenched complexityiv and overlapping nature.
This leads us to believe that an ethnographic and a micro sociological approach are usually the most
suitable for this field of study, relying on a “philosophy of experience”18.
W. Benjamin seems to embody this research spirit even though with his insights he recognized that
“the experience of the city perpetually challenges and undermines the categories that are applied to
it”.19
Benjamin’s flaneur is the peak of a subjective method of inquiry, a methodology that make use of
senses, narratives and metaphors, engaging with “structures of sensibility”20, those urban realities
which unfold by subjective encounter, indirectly highlighting the very complexity of how the
reception of urban culture works. This complexity of expression lies in the idea that every sensorial
element of urban surroundings can be, or become as well, symptomatic of the related
contextualization and attribute of that urban culture, with direct, indirect or just related reference to
it.

14, 16, 17
Barker, Joshua, 2009, “Street life”, στο City & Society, Vol. 21, no 2, p.160.; idem.; p.158.
18
Source from - “Revolt and Crisis in Greece; Between a present yet to pass and a future still to come” Chapter 2- “Urban
planning and revolt: a spatial analysis of the December 2008 uprising in Athens, Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou, 2011.
19,20,21
Walter Benjamin, Urban Studies and the Narratives of City Life” Micheal Keith; Idem; Idem p.420.

4
Benjamin defies categorization for this reason: “the refusal of history”21 as “a refusal of a particular
kind of ordering”22. He recognizes that within the city the cumulative realities socially construct the
modes of representation and so everything can become an open reference, a piece of an incomplete
picture of the whole.
The sounds of place, again, become good examples of how it is possible to conceive the attributes
of a context. By pretending to be a tourist, walking along Ermou Street, a main street in Athens
center city, and being exposed to the music of street artist, or even just to random sounds:. All those
will contribute not only to giving him coordinates of the location, but as well a perception of it,
since sounds have an evocative power of creating a “cultural map of meanings”23 related to their
contextual engagement, but that perception will be just one of the many that compose a larger
exhaustive description and that can reconstruct a plausible explanation of what s/he is really
encountering. What s/he hears could be directly related to that place and that moment, or indirectly
to a personal recollection of the players, or more indirectly related to a context of meaning that is
perceivable in that exact moment but not unfoldable, because it is not placed there and now.
Although the flaneurie approach of inquiry jeopardizes its scientific validity, since it is based on a
pseudo-method of limited subjectivity, paradoxically it is this estrangement from normative
approaches that is capable of revealing on a sensory level the multifaceted nature of urban culture as
a whole, unfolding the “ambivalent relationship between the production of time and space and the
realization of city form”24. We could refer to it as Benjamin’s attempt to develop a “constellatory
epistemology” (Eagleton, 1990): the result of his deconstruction of urban fabric themes and, thus
simultaneously, his attempt to show how it “is possible for theory (logic) to be incorporated […] in
symbolic forms”25 of urban narratives and sensorial images.
In conclusion, this analysis was not meant to leave us with a sense of impossibility of research upon
this theme, nor to leave a feeling of determinism with regard to what happens in a urban context.
Instead it tried to embrace the idea of what appears and what we sense in the cities as part of a
bigger picture that can’t always be disclosed authentically in a fixed theoretical landscape. What
appears is usually a recollection of the ordering of a larger system of determinations and structures
of meanings, manifesting itself as disordered complexity of perceptions.
A particular form of engagement understanding this is either living in the context long enough to
embody the places or in moving in-between these places grasping the symptoms and reconnecting
them to that particular idea of order embedded in that city which we can learn from theory but that
cannot immediately be unfolded or understood by sitting exclusively at our desks.
i
Systemic means deeply engrained in the system. It usually describes habits or processes that are difficult to reverse
because they are built into a system. Main reference has been “Systems theory” – L.v. Bertalanffy
ii
Source from - “Theories of Globalization”, Barrie Axford, 2013. p.21. referred to Globalization and the connection
between agents-structures of constitution, a biunique relation. It could be referred to system theory.
iii
Source from - “Understanding Contemporary Change. What is the ‘Global Systemic Shift’ of our days and how it
works”, Roland Benedikter, 2013. “Multiverse” here refers to the trajectories of change which are interwoven and
mixed; applied to this essay, it means that the perceptions are as well mixed and have different trajectories of expressio
along with different ways of being perceived.
iv
Reference to “Complexity theory”. The term here is used to associate the characteristics of complex systems with how
urban culture could possibly be expressed, for instance : nothing remains fixed, unpredictability, path dependence
between elements, co-evolution and mutual adaptation, interwoven associations, not fixed and consistent relationship
between cause and effect, and other.

22
Benjamin, Urban Studies and the Narratives of City Life”- Micheal Keith; p.414
22
Idem.
23
Cohen Sara, 1995, “Sounding out the city: music and the sensuous production of place”, στο Transactions of the Institute of British
Geographers, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1995); p. 444; Hall, 1995.
24
Benjamin, Urban Studies and the Narratives of City Life”- Micheal Keith; p.411.
25
Idem, p.421

5
Bibliography

-“A Study of the Development, Characteristics and Uses of Open Public Spaces in Athens from 1940 to
2000”; John N. Terzoglou, Middlesex University, 2001.

-“Walter Benjamin, Urban Studies and the Narratives of City Life”- Chapter 35, p.412. Micheal Keith. 2008;

- Barker, Joshua, 2009, “Street life”, στο City & Society, Vol. 21, no 2, p.159.

- Cohen Sara, 1995, “Sounding out the city: music and the sensuous production of place”, στο Transactions
of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1995),p. 444.

- “Revolt and Crisis in Greece; Between a present yet to pass and a future still to come” Chapter 2- “Urban
planning and revolt: a spatial analysis of the December 2008 uprising in Athens, Antonis Vradis and Dimitris
Dalakoglou, 2011.

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