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Seeing Like a City: The Dialectic of Modern and Premodern Ways of Seeing in Urban Governance

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Studies of urban governance, as well as the overlapping literature on law and space, have been heavily influenced by critical analyses of how spatial techniques helped constitute modern disciplinary powers and knowledges. The rise of land-use control and land-use planning seem at first sight to be perfect examples of the disciplining of populations through space by the kind of governmental gaze dubbed by Scott (1998) as “seeing like a state.” But a detailed genealogical study that puts the emergence of the notion of “land use” in the broader context of urban governance technologies reveals that modernist techniques of land use planning, such as North American zoning, are more flexible, contradictory, and fragile than critical urbanists assume. Legal tools of premodern origin that target nonquantifiable offensiveness and thus construct an embodied and relational form of urban subjectivity keep reappearing in the present day. When cities attempt to govern conflicts about the use of space through objective rules, these rules often undermine themselves in a dialectical process that results in the return to older notions of offensiveness. This article argues that the dialectical process by which modernist “seeing like a state” techniques give way to older ways of seeing (e.g., the logic of nuisance) plays a central role in the epistemologically hybrid approach to governing space that is here called “seeing like a city.”

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5893.2011.00441.x

Affiliations: University of Toronto

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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