China Mieville’s City & the City was one of the required texts in The City of the Future class that I took when I first became a CHID major at UW.
Being as brief as possible and without giving too much away, the story is about two cities, UI Qoma and Besźel, that exist in the same space. (Not side by side, but intermingled, mixed.) Some areas may be a little more of one than the other, while others are more “cross-hatched”. The residents of each city must “unsee” everything and everyone of the other city, even if they are sharing a sidewalk with residents of the other city, even if they bump shoulders with those people on the sidewalk. (There was a funny bit about how car accidents are handled, if there is one car from each city involved.) One can recognized traces of styles from real life cities, one city had shades of Middle Eastern and Eastern Europe or Russia. The other city was more reminiscent of a Western European city. Residents are taught, from birth, how to ignore and unsee; transgressions (or “breaching”) are managed by the Breach organization.
You can read the book – in fact, you should. What I loved about it, and what was inspiring, is that it really made me think about the existence of separate realities for different groups of people within a shared urban space. It made me think about all the things I don’t see and have become somewhat immune to as I walk through Seattle, Berlin, Philadelphia, LA, *pick any city*. What happens when we stop unseeing? Through all of my travels and brainstorming for this project, I kept coming back to The City & The City.
In working on this project and looking for resources, I came across an academic paper that someone else had written: A Tourist to Besźel and UI Qoma: Unseeing, the Brutality of Borders, and the Re-Interpretation of Psychogeography in China Miéville’s City & the City by one Rob O’Connor. One of my posts in which I talk about this paper can be found here, the full paper online can be found here. If you’re interested in the concepts of the flâneur, of psychogeography, panopticism, and politics of urban space – or even more concrete themes of borders and control, both O’Connor’s paper and the actual book are a great read.
The opening paragraph of O’Connor’s paper:
The epigraph to China Miéville’s novel The City and the City (2009) reads “deep inside the town there opens up, so to speak, double streets, doppelganger streets, mendacious and delusive streets”. The quotation is taken from the story “The Cinnamon Shops” (1934) by the Polish writer, Bruno Schulz and is an interesting introduction to a text primarily concerned with the psychogeography of urban environments. The inclusion of “mendacious” and “delusive” alludes to the deceptive nature of cities and their ability to not tell the truth. Also, in light of Miéville’s political writing, it is impossible to ignore the allusions to the act of dissembling the streets, the reality of our streets lost behind a cover of social and political falsehoods. Given that Schulz himself was murdered for appearing in the wrong quarter of Nazi-occupied Drohobych during WWII, Miéville’s choice of epigraph highlights the political control of border spaces and the brutality that this can involve.