Hyperurbio Ergo Sum


Katerina Ruedi

The University of Illinois at Chicago

Copyright (c) 1998 by Katerina Ruedi, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Roger Silverstone, Visions of Suburbia. New York: Routledge, 1996.

  1. Suburbia is ubiquitous and inescapable. Most of us have either lived in it, worked in it (my own situation until recently) or passed through its endless carpet on the way to or from the metropolis. Yet suburbia has been a part of 'low' culture for so long that theorists (particularly in architecture and art) have resolutely looked in the other direction and dismissed it (and the majority of the global population) as reactionary and banal. The strength of this slimmish book is that unlike the architectural or photographic investigations characterising suburban studies familiar to me (I am an architect and academic), its essays focus serious scholarly attention on suburbia and show it enmeshed in a complex mix of contemporary forces.

  2. A commission born of a conversation between the editor (Roger Silverstone of the Department of Media Studies at Sussex University) and publisher (Rebecca Barden of Routledge), the book is a collection of essays. Like the editor, most of the contributors are British and associated with departments of cultural or media studies; Roger Silverstone states that "in many ways this is a Sussex book." This gives a particular slant to the texts. The book assumes a critical, left-leaning reader familiar with postcolonial debate, the theorisation of desire and identity and the primacy of representation in ideological formation. The book presents suburban ideology as powerful, repulsive and compulsive, and suburbia itself as invisible, paradoxical, creative, gendered, consumerized, hybridised in space and time, sterile, spatial, virtual, mediated, televisual, privatized, domesticated, constructed through the imagination. Reading it, one sees suburbia as messy, confused, idealistic, surreal, contradictory and at the same time homogenous, isolationist, racist, sexist, nostalgic and righteous.

  3. Despite the Britishness of its authors, Visions of Suburbia privileges multiple geographical, historical and political viewpoints, with an emphasis on the relationship of suburbia to consumption--from the colonists who differentiated themselves through representations of history, luxury and nature in Batavia, Madras and Calcutta to the punks of Bromley who consumed, in reverse, the night-clubs of central London, from the young mothers who through Tupperware parties overcame their social isolation in the US suburbs, to the 'tellie' families who acquired a teleological center in front of suburban soap operas and sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Neighbours and The Good Life. I recognised myself, my family and friends in the multiple tableaus painted by the essays.

  4. The essays locate the production of suburbia in different spaces and times, beginning in the eighteenth century and covering mainly Anglo-Saxon and colonial territory. They are loosely organized into three groups, consisting of environment, social space and discourse, or material world, social practice and ideological representation. These groups closely resemble the Lefebvrian triad of representational space, spatial practice and representations of space. Indeed a subtitle for the book might well be The Cultural Production of Suburban Space.

  5. The first group of essays presents the broadest historical and geographical sweep. It begins with John Archer's examination of moments in the history of the colonial suburb. Archer presents Dutch and British colonists as the first producers of the suburban phenomenon. He argues that the colonial suburb acted as an independent/counterpositional space to the colonised urban centre. The economic and social power of the colonists, and their rejection of the colonial city centre, allowed the creation of independent settlements whose idealisation of history and nature acted as precursor to suburban development in Europe.

  6. Anthony King's essay (continuing his well-known research on the colonial origin of the bungalow) cleverly and wittily exposes the ideological contradictions of transporting this colonial building type back to the 'old world.' King insists that the phenomenon of suburbia cannot be disconnected from patriarchal colonial capitalism. He suggests that the bungalow's multicultural origins led to its initial association with loosened sexual boundaries. He uses a popular Victorian play appropriately titled The Bungalow to illustrate his point. Internalising the political threat of multiculturalism as a challenge to the sexual order, the bungalow is a barometer of colonial relations. The social/sexual threat once posed by this now seemingly tame building type reveals the large ideological shifts that were necessary to incorporate suburbia into contemporary global capitalist ideology and institute the suburb as sexually and socially safe.

  7. Deborah Chambers' essay moves us into the post-war period. She examines change in the social relations of first and second wave suburban immigrants outside Sydney, Australia through the eyes of its women inhabitants. She shows how the first wave of immigrants saw suburban settlement as a positive experience, reproducing prevalent ideologies of class (labour, small entrepreneurs and professionals), colonialism (virgin territory marked by individual home construction and partial economic self-sufficiency) and patriarchy (gendered division of labour). She charts the change to nimbyism and racism following the arrival of the second wave of immigrants, and the retreat into a nostalgic myth of community and nature by the 'original' suburbanites.

  8. The second group of essays examine Anglo-Saxon suburban social practices, mainly in the twentieth century. Gary Cross argues that time is a major social construct organising the concept of suburbia. He presents the week-end as a corollary to the spatial division of labour in industrial society, concentrating largely on Britain and the United States, and associates the week-end with masculinity. Fought for by labour and venerated by breadwinners as a time of escape, the week-end was a time when male providers enacted fantasies of economic and personal self-sufficiency through DIY and family leisure activities. Cross shows that this conception of the week-end, dependent on the industrial segmentation of time, is now being seriously eroded by the contemporary full-week economy.

  9. Alison Clarke's essay on Tupperware shows how the consumption of a commodity such as Tupperware created a positive social space in suburbia by fulfilling suburban women's need for collectivity and self-esteem. She contrasts the ideologies of Earl Tupper, the company's president and product inventor, and Brownie Wise, the vice-president and orchestrator of Tupperware parties. Brownie Wise's ritualisation of consumption through Tupperware parties glamourised Earl Tupper's puritanical good taste, embedded it into suburban iconography and, far more importantly, created women's social networks. Working against the otherwise isolated existence of suburban women and elevating their social confidence, Clarke suggests, Tupperware parties supported a form of non-radical feminism. Their creation of a social structure through the appropriation of domestic suburban space for consumption is their unlikely political legacy.

  10. Nancy and James Duncan's essay on the politics of suburbia is far less positive. Focusing on ideologies of individualism, localism and conservatism, it paints a picture of nimbyism much bleaker than that of Deborah Chambers. The Duncans chart the consent given to the unequal distribution of resources and services in suburbia by both its beneficiaries and those that are clearly disadvantaged. The widespread ignorance of the political manipulation of zoning in suburbia creates, according to the Duncans, increasingly unjust socio-economic structures, successfully concealed by myths of neighbourhood autonomy. Given the strong critique which underpins most of this essay, it is therefore disappointing that the Duncans fail to suggest alternative solutions. Their somewhat academic discomfort with the exercise of critical distance and expert judgement was a real problem for me because they had employed it throughout the essay but then remained sitting on the fence at the end.

  11. The third and biggest group of essays deals with the relationship of suburbs to the media, and in particular to television. John Hartley's text deals with the construction of female suburban identity through television, and specifically through representations of iconic female roles in Australian soap operas. Hartley talks about the reproduction of collective identity through such commodified media representations, making Hobbesian readings of personality and style in the media as representations of what he calls the contemporary 'frocks pop.' Importantly, he argues that a popularisation of cultural studies is essential to make the role of media in the production and reproduction of identity understandable and changeable by non-academics. Like other contributors, however, he fails to set out his own model for doing so.

  12. Lynn Spigel's essay charts the transformation of the suburban home from a literal to a virtual theatre through the televisation of suburban theatricality in soap operas such as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Focusing on the iconography of the space race and science fiction in suburbia, Spigel shows the sexism, homophobia and racism embedded in suburban media iconography. Space-age media representations of suburbia are shown to be, despite their rhetoric of ultra-modernity, as reactionary and ideological.

  13. Andy Medhurst examines the relationship of class and identity in British sitcoms. Whilst it focuses mainly on Britain, his essay suggests a profound difference between British and American suburbia. Medhurst identifies a deep sense of ambivalence and irony in relation to the suburb in British sitcoms. Embodied in the subtlely cruel depictions of characters like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances or Margo in The Good Life, and the celebration of the working class in soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders, Medhurst suggests that British collective nostalgia looks to working-class solidarity and not to bourgeois suburban ideals for symbols of social stability.

  14. The subtle sense of unease continues in Simon Frith's essay on rock and pop in suburbia. Identifying the British suburb as a zone of teenage rebellion, exemplified by the formation of pop/rock personalities such as Boy George, Frith sees suburbia as a repressive, creative and transgressive space, sustained by a symbiotic relationship with the cultural life of the metropolitan center. Such a revaluation of the suburb also suggests an alternative history of the city, where the rise and fall of specific suburbs becomes central to processes of cultural formation.

  15. Teenage rebellion continues as the main theme in Vicky Lebeau's essay. This bleak essay argues that parental frustration is internalised and represented by succeeding generations of suburban occupants. Lebeau uses the example of punk to argue that the loss of community, the pressure to conform and the boredom of suburbia set up irreconcilable tensions which can only be resolved through repression and delayed rebellion. Like many other British contributors to the book, she draws on Wilmott and Young's canonical studies of suburban settlement to expose the cross-generational alienation of suburban life.

  16. The bleak tone continues in the postscript. Homi Bhabha (once resident in the land of the Granny of Grantham--Margaret Thatcher) presents a short but virulent tirade against the 'slimy Newtness' of family values in the American suburbs. His essay, if somewhat strident and offhand, rightly closes the book. It also highlights an important failing, if not of the book, then at least of the editorial role.

  17. Roger Silverstone's introduction begins with a quote from the canonical text Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour, the first 'high architecture' apologists for the 'low architecture' suburb. Rejecting the still prevalent high-cultural dismissal of the suburbs, Roger Silverstone uses their statement that 'many people like suburbia' to symbolically affirm the value of suburbanity. In Silverstone's selection of 'like' as the justification of 'suburbia' lies both the strength and weakness of the book. The essays and introduction all emphasise the production of meaning through processes of consumption and use. Production here therefore does not mean the physical construction of buildings, infrastructures and landscapes, and the diversion of vast economic, political and natural resources that make this possible. There is relatively little discussion of the interests of large political and economic blocs in supporting suburban development. The bleaker texts (perhaps not accidentally often authored by women) are better at painting a broader canvas. The editor avoids presenting a provocative thesis, his introduction ends with the summary of the penultimate text, and there is no conclusion. Even if the placement of Bhabha's critical outpouring as the culmination of the anthology is purposeful, it is not directed to any end. This may be understandable given the postmodern critique of mastery and the delicate political and economic relations underpinning the production of anthologies, but expert authority and critical distance is inherent to the politics and economics of academia and publication. With a subject as ubiquitous as suburbia, a broad and provocative critique is particularly necessary, as a focus for further research, a stimulus to debate and a springboard for change.

  18. On the positive side, Visions of Suburbia takes an important but under-examined subject, raises key contemporary issues and achieves a positive revaluation of suburbia. All of the essays are well-written and edited. They present new perspectives on the suburb and reveal it to be a complex, fascinating phenomenon. The book thus firmly takes out the sub in the sub-urb and transforms it into the super-urb. From there it is not far to the media-driven hyper-urb through which the desire for suburbia is produced and reproduced. In the book's emphasis on media constructions of suburbia, 'Desiderio ergo sum' becomes 'hyperurbio ergo sum.' Life in the hyperurb, however, remains safely unchangeable. The book fails to deliver the vision promised by its title. In architecture, there is a great deal of talk right now of 'fields and field-space.' Landscape, urbanism and the media are merging in an entwinement of nature, culture and virtuality that implies a future hyperurbia of global dimensions and terrifying ideological compulsion. Diving into this media ride, flying on the magic carpet of the hyperburbs, this book reveals the centrality of this most ubiquitous, contradictory, repulsive and compulsive of contemporary phenomena but does not say enough about the actions necessary to shape the future of the magic kingdom at the end of the rainbow.

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