Urbanization is always a process of both creation and destruction, emergence and disappearance, order and disorder, presence and absence, conflict and dialogue, movement and stagnation, colonization and emancipation. The [un]settled is a possible link to capture and contest these urban dichotomies. By bringing together political theory and urbanism, we assume the [un]settled not only as a basic urban configuration, but as its very (pre)­condition. We propose a reflection that works toward a critical engagement and reconstruction of urban theory.[1]

Being unsettled takes place on multiple layers of meaning and feeling. We all know conditions of the unsettled – objects, places, weather. Unsettled may the name for abandoned and deserted areas, potentially resulting from environmental pollution or economic decline that affect our sense of place. Beyond these spatial imaginaries and connotations, the unsettled is a state of mind, retrieving memories, animating past stories and emotions, (re)activating positive and negative affects that become particularly prevalent in times of uncertainty and perplexity.

Historically, the condition of unsettledness has engaged the minds of philosophers, lawyers, educators and natural scientists for a long time. As early as the 17th century, preacher Jeremiah Whittaker (1642) fervently promoted Christ as the ‘settlement of the unsettled’ believers of the time. John Stuart Mill (1844) titled his reflections on political economy as Essays on some unsettled questions. Contemporary accounts of the unsettled discuss the term in debates about law, precarious citizenship and unstable statehood, as well as in literary studies, critical sexuality studies and post-colonial theory.

These versatile disciplinary engagements underscore the multi-faceted applicability and societal relevance of the [un]settled. It stands, now and then, for ‘being out of joint’ and represents complex sentiments, actions and re­actions in processes of political and social transformation. The settled designates a materialized and discursive ‘normality’ as opposed to the pathologized or stigmatized unsettled.

States of settledness with expectations to ensure and create stability, regularity and regulation seem to prevail despite growing social pluralism and injustice. We take the unsettled to include the status of those literally unsettled (i.e., without fixed abode, be it in consequence of homelessness or flight) in addition to the piercing political dilemma of [un]settledness, which characterizes contemporary urban life and politics.

In our approach, the unsettled is, first, a prerequisite for urbanity. Paradoxically positioning the city as unsettled (Roskamm 2017), we infiltrate the assumption that the city ‘is’ a spatial settlement in the literal sense. While the city undeniably consists of dwellings, buildings, housing estates – settlements – they cannot conclusively establish fixed, durable, or safe states of urban totality. This is because the city is, this is our second point, always in flux – a process, a contestation, an event.

Our hypothesis of the unsettled is based on the diagnosis that the concept of the city is a floating, uncertain, finally in(de)terminable entity, fluctuating between settlement efforts and the impossibility to finalize these aspirations. The city is thus endless and excessive beyond its own borders. This excess is not an additive feature, but the city’s constitutive condition. Settling activities and its unsettling counterparts as sedimentations and dislocations (Laclau 1990) constitute the city as a system of meaning and power.

While the transitions and transformations between the settled and the unsettled are practically impossible to detach in life and politics, we analytically distinguish between settled and unsettled urban conditions and institutions with the aim of theorizing the city. The settled as urban state of mind and practice operates under premises of institutionalized, routinized or normalized rules, policies and plans that latently or explicitly structure and govern urban life.

As unsettled, we understand contestatory or tendentially less systematic practices of urban dwelling and politics. Unsettling urban practices challenge and subvert, rather than consolidate, the dimension of conflict in everyday urban life. Altogether, we propose to think the city as a [un]settled, [un]settling and [un]settlable phenomenon.

By disambiguating the irrevocably interrelated topos of the [un]settled, we propose four analytical approximations to which we refer as vectors:

Vector #1 The Post-Foundational City

Vector #2 The Spectral City

Vector #3 The Post-Political City

Vector #4 The Affective City.

Following Henri Lefebvre’s (1996) quest for a new urban ‘science of the city’, we propose these four categories to span open theoretical avenues to understand the urban as a space of multi-layered contestation. Notably, the proposed vectors overlap and interpenetrate both conceptually and empirically.

Vector #1 The Post-Foundational City situates our approach to a radical concept of urbanity in post-foundational political theory (Marchart 2013; Laclau 1990). This way of thinking is based on the premise of non-determined history. According to Ernesto Laclau, history is the result of alterable power relations between forces that cannot be reduced to any kind of unitary principle or essence.

Every power relation is contingent and depends on conditions that are equally contingent. Because no power relation is conclusively determinable – and this is the optimistic element in Laclau’s theory – there is the possibility of changing these relations: “If social relations are contingent, it means they can be radically transformed through struggle, instead of that transformation being conceived as a self-transformation of an objective nature” (1990: 35).

Laclau refers to Claude Lefort and his thesis of the ‘locus of power’ as ‘an empty place’, which “cannot be occupied” because “no individual and no group can be consubstantial with it – and it cannot be represented” (1988: 17). In this place, we should find the ‘final reason’, the deterministic foundation for all history. The post-foundational argument is that such  final reason, rationale orbasic foundation does not and cannot exist because there is no final objectivity. Struggles and contestations over the occupation of ‘the place of power’ cannot be sustainable or complete, yet, it is equally impossible to avoid the constant struggle involved in articulations of hegemony. .

Assuming antagonism and contingency as constitutive of urban theory, the ‘place of power’ remains necessarily empty in the city. The necessary emptiness triggers efforts to settle central urban areas (e.g., with power, meaning and money), yet the ineradicable contingency of the urban prevents itself from ‘being’. Only temporary institutions of hegemony and meaning are possible, conditioned, yet enabled by their respective counter-hegemonic formations of power.

Understanding the city in post-foundational terms pushes for a transition from necessity toward contingency, from identity to difference, from substance to relationality and attends to the “surprising return” of objects (Marchart 2013, 335). Operating from an ontology of ineradicable antagonism and negativity (Roskamm 2015), the post-foundational city is temporarily instituted from a radical lack of necessity or Truth.

In contrast to urban typologizations such as mega cities, global cities, world cities or European cities, the post-foundational city defines its object not via geographic categories, but via contingent acts of institution and destitution, of inclusion and exclusion. Post-foundational urban theory seeks to build out the ontology of the city towards one of absence and conflict.

Vector #2 The Spectral City draws attention to the haunted nature of the city. While ghosts already linger at the beginning of Marx’ Communist Manifesto, Lefebvre establishes a concrete quest for a ‘spectral analysis’ of the city and calls on the ghostly presences and absences and their implications on urban practice. Later, Derrida’s (1994) approach of hauntology activates the specter as a ‘figure of deconstruction’.

The spectral city brings together Lefebvre’s analysis with Derrida’s hauntology, both as sciences of ghosts. Spectres haunt actual and future urban ruins as well as urban notions, narratives, routines, and regulations. A spectral analysis tries to find and uncover urban ghosts of the pasts, which live within the material discursive residues of urban environments. We argue that attending to the haunted and haunting dimensions that inhabit history helps to re-shift linear conceptions of temporality and spatiality.

The figure of the ghost opens an avenue of analysis for genealogical investigations into the sunken niches of urban life, development, and production. It unfolds narratives of urbanism and architecture, which are at work to shape current urban realities everyday. Spectral analysis intervenes, too, in the empirical fields of urban studies, geography and sociology.

The intangible, uncountable category of ghosts confronts and provokes any system and quantification of urban life, for example in the form of surveys and statistical analyses. The political relevance of a spectral approach to the city points precisely to the always-already returning (i.e., unsettling), and never finally arriving (i.e., settling) nature of politics. Finally, it lays a possible path to an alliance with post-colonial perspectives in and of urban theory, addressing the haunted interactions of colonial legacies as [un]settled states of the urban in different places and times.

Vector #3 The Post-Political City takes up ongoing debates about the condition of the supposed omnipresence of post-politics in times of ever-expansive neoliberalization, transnational capitalism and a crisis of democratic representation and legitimacy (Dikec 2016; Swyngedouw 2016). The post-political or post-democratic condition circumscribes the growing disenchantment and mistrust with political institutions, representative democracy and the expanding technocratic problem-solving approaches to politics.

The assessment of post-politicization might be adequate to describe current political narratives proclaiming that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) to politics in the way they are currently conducted. However, the discourse about post-politics offers instruments for grasping the ideological core in current urban concepts such as ‘smart cities’ or the seemingly intractable norm of ‘sustainability’. Urbanism has grown out of modernism as an ideology that rests on the belief that it is not ideological.

This alleged non-ideology is exactly what the concept of post-politics can reveal and contest. Radical urban theory ultimately is a place for critics of orthodox practices and routines of the production of city in everyday urban planning and urban politics such as new public management and urban resilience. The post-political city offers a possible gateway for orientation and counter-narration within current debates about ‘futures of the city’.

Vector #4 The Affective City underscores the role of emotions and passions in urban politics. Following Mouffe’s (2005) claim that the mobilization of passions animates the enactment of radical democratic futures, we consider the affective nature of politics in the post-foundational ontology of negativity to sketch out urban politics as ‘affective dissent’ (Bargetz 2015).

To theorize the spectral city as a site of affective, embodied, [un]settling conflict, we encourage the coalition of affect theories and urban studies. Reading the city through a lens of affect – a state of affecting and being affected – complements the debate about post-politics as entrenched by feelings such as fear, anger, hope and anxiety. It activates the notion of ‘affective dissent’ or negative affect to theorize the city as a site of affective contestation.

The synthesis of the affective and the haunted makes the [un]settled operative as a potentiality to affectively settle or unsettle urban spaces, politics and architecture. It conceptualizes the affective as haunted, and respectively, considers the haunted as affective. This theore­tical triangulation radicalizes both affective and hauntological studies and provides new ways to unpack, and thus understand and explain the persistence or disappearance, ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of political claims, narratives or concrete political measures.

Finally, the connection of the affective and the haunted in the supposed post-political condition renders legible how haunted moments of politics and of ‘the political’ affect the kernel of the city. Due to its negative ontology of post-foundationalism, the spectral nature of affect leaks into the haunted nature of urban subjects and objects. Activating the productive possibilities of conflict and fear, it sets out towards a post-foundational theory of affect.

With the four discussed vectors, we unsettle urban foundations in a blaze of glory of negativity and absences. Our aim is to detect a theory exploring the unplanned, the unordered, and the uncertain, entrenched in failure, disagreement and disruption. We suggest considering the constitution of the city not by asking what it ‘is’, but by asking “what prevents it from being” (Laclau 1990, 44).

Departing from the notion of a fundamental lack, our proposal goes to the conceptual foundations of urban theory and inverts its deepest assumptions. It un-grounds the notion of the city to reveal the latter as a product of constant [un]settling.

The article was first published in engagée #6/7 ‘Radical Cities’.


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Whittaker, Jeremiah (1642) Eirenopoios, Christ the settlement of unsettled times, in a sermon preached before the honourable House of Commons, at their publicke fast in Margarets Church at Westminster.

[1] This text came into being after many fruitful discussions at the 2017 TU Vienna conference Unsettled. Urban routines, temporalities and contestations (we would like to thank Ed Wall for putting the notion of the unsettled on our agenda).

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