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Ben Highmore, Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City
(Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 178 pp.
Index and bibliography.
ISBN 0333929349 (hbk)£52.50, $80.00;
0333929357(pbk)£17.99, $28.95

Susan Alice Fischer

Ben Highmore’s Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City offers productive theoretical frameworks to those studying literary and other cultural representations of the city. Drawing on a range of cultural texts and contexts-from the 19th century department store and Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man in the Crowd’ to The Battle of Algiers, detective fiction and The Matrix-Highmore presents a multilayered approach which mirrors the city’s depth and its dreamlike phenomenon of ‘history accumulating but not quite adding up’ (p. 4).

For Highmore, metaphors and cultural texts do not just stand for the city, but constitute it. Metaphor does not cover an underlying reality of the city; instead, each figurative layer is itself part of urban actuality. Rather than ‘decipher’, Highmore’s task is to make ‘vivid … cultural ciphers’ (p. 6). He thus turns to Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘thick description’ of ‘the accumulated field of culture (for instance a multiplicity of “thin” texts knitted together)’ (pp. 17-18). Interpretative and symbolic texts-including artistic and academic-become part of the city’s material reality. Thus distinctions between urban ‘reality’ and ‘representation’ blur, allowing for ‘thickness’ and complexity.

Highmore also draws upon Henri Lefebvre’s ideas on rhythmanalysis from his posthumous Éléments de rythmanalyse: Introduction à la connaissance des rythmes. Highmore focuses on rhythms in different city texts and contexts: on the speeding up and slowing down of movement as time variously intersects with city spaces. A methodology with room for both the ‘poetic’ and the ‘scientific’, rhythmanalysis moves towards the ‘ambitious’ project of ‘a complex orchestration of the totality’ as one examines ‘the multiple rhythms of modernity: the various speeds of circulation; the different spacings of movement; and the varied directions of flows’ (p. 11). While illuminating the modern Western city, rhythmanalysis also sheds light on relations with other places, particularly imperial relations resulting in changing Western and colonial spaces, circulation of commodities and migration.

In the central chapters, Highmore offers a more concrete understanding of some of these concepts by focussing on different sorts of cultural texts and phenomena located in a range of cities and time periods. For instance, looking at the rookeries of St. Giles in Central London, where hugely divergent social spaces of excruciating poverty and excessive wealth are placed in very close physical proximity, allows for a distinction between physical and social space. Highmore illustrates such spaces with a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), with its perambulations through London’s crowded streets, including the rookeries, and ultimately draws parallels between these representations of city spaces and those in Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1945).

Elsewhere Highmore draws on rhythmanalysis to identify a gendered ‘consumer choreography’ as he looks at the rise of the department store in the 19th century with its ‘feminizing’ effect on the city, which, however, leaves male privilege intact. ‘Respectable’ women shoppers move at a certain pace in public, not stopping in the streets lest their intentions be misinterpreted. However, the shop window is designed to arrest their attention and movement and engender a ‘passionate involvement between spectator and commodity’ (pp. 51-52). Thus women find themselves moving in a ‘syncopated’ rhythm as they respond to competing dictates concerning women’s occupation of public space and their consumption of the ‘city of attractions’. Another layering of urban reality that Highmore discusses here is the marginalising or elimination of smaller and more diverse shops to make way for large department stores, which creates greater homogeneity in the social and physical space of Oxford Street. At the same time, second-hand shops and other small businesses continue to proliferate, and it is important to locate co-existing residual cultures. Highmore also writes interestingly here about the ways that consumer culture transforms public space into consumer space which, as private enterprise, then constitutes a different sort of private space.

In his chapter on the development of department stores in 19th century London, Highmore alludes to connections between Western consumerism and imperialism. In particular, he looks at the orientalising impulses in merchandising and design at Liberty’s of London. In the following chapter, he turns his attention more squarely to the contested spaces of colonial and neo-colonial cities starting from an examination of the film The Battle of Algiers and ending with the segregated bidonvilles of contemporary France. Drawing on rhythmanalysis to contrast the ‘efficiency’ of the European section of Algiers with the ‘tangle’ of the Casbah, Highmore shows how the Casbah becomes a space of resistance-‘an oppositional public sphere’ — through which Algerians reclaim Algiers (pp. 75, 80). One of the most interesting parts of this chapter is the focus on how ‘Algerian women resist colonialism by asserting a traditional form of dress that makes them unavailable for assimilation and colonialist sexual solicitations’ by wearing the veil (p. 83), while at other times they move between the borderlands of Casbah and the European section by removing the veil and ‘passing’. Depending of the context, the presence or absence of the veil allows women greater mobility and signifies resistance. Highmore’s discussion of the veil is extremely timely, of course, to today’s neo-colonial cities in France where the government legally discriminate against schoolgirls who wear the veil. The veil can thus be read, at least in part, as resistance to cultural and economic marginalisation in French cities, which Highmore appropriately defines as neo-colonial, rather than multicultural.

In other central chapters of the book, Highmore writes variously and engagingly of urban mobility, networks and communication by drawing on the urban world of the hard-boiled detective and the super-hero. For the detective, access to information and physical space is vital to the investigation. The detective’s ability to blend in and transform him or herself is crucial to tailing suspects or tapping sources for information. By focussing on an African American detective — Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins-a female detective-Sara Paretsy’s V. I. Warshawski — and a disabled detective — Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, Highmore shows how access to space or information in the city is curtailed according to the detective’s ‘race’, gender or degree of physical ability. The following chapter examines networks, communication and information in the physical and virtual worlds and looks at how networks, from telegraphy and railroads to the Internet, transform space and move people and commodities. Using The Matrix as starting point, the chapter looks at the superhero in the vertical city as a way into a discussion of the spatial location of work in urban office blocks. Highmore draws upon Walter Benjamin and Asja Lascis’s ideas of ‘porous space’ and ‘porous social practice’, where the private and the communal permeate one another, as he examines the ‘endless connectivity’ of the contemporary urban environment (p. 133).

In his conclusion, Highmore returns to a clarification of text and context as well as to a more in-depth exploration of rhythmanalysis. At the nexus of space and time, rhythm privileges what is left of the ‘natural’ in the city (often assumed to have been virtually extirpated from the urban environment). Attention to rhythm reveals that the city is not entirely in fast motion; some elements of urban life are paralysed or slowed down, as exemplified by gridlock. Returning to shopping, for instance, Highmore reminds us that rhythmanalysis shows ‘the varied rhythms of the most exorbitant forms of spectacular consumption, while also recognizing that more residual forms of recycling-the selling of second-hand clothes and furniture and produce that is past its best-continue and actually increase during the rise of the department store’ (p. 158). Rhythmanalysis also manifests the plurality of colonial and neo-colonial cities which should ‘be continually recognized as a space of movement and migration’ (p. 158). Throughout Cityscapes, Highmore looks at rhythms in diverse city spaces and times: circulating in crowds, consuming commodities, accessing information, navigating physical and virtual networks and resisting colonialisation. At the same time, he shows that examining cultural representations alongside historical manifestations of urban ‘reality’ enriches our understanding and allows us to experience a ‘thickness’ that is an important aspect of the city itself. Arguing for complexity and a multilayered analysis of the city, Cityscapes is itself complex and multilayered. The reader can re-enter it in different times and places to gain insights not only into the specific texts it discusses, but into ways of seeing the city. Highmore’s attention to the power dynamics of city spaces is particularly laudable as it highlights interactions with social space and difference. One of the best things about this book is that it examines how racialised, gendered and classed city spaces are configured and contested as well as represented and rhythmed.

To Cite This Article:

Susan Alice Fischer, ‘Review: Ben Highmore, Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]