Time, space and the suburbs

By Roger Keil

A new book by Nashville based writer, editor and photographer Rohan Quinby contains a thoughtful and inspiring essay on the possibilities for progressive, radical, democratic politics “where we live now”. That latter phrase refers to “these new postmetropolitan suburbs” that many North Americans call home (or place of work, consumption, education, play etc. one might add). Quinby’s programmatically titled Time and the Suburbs: The Politics of Built Environment and the Future of Dissent (Winnipeg: Arbeiterring Publishing 2011) starts from the assumption that “Tactics of organization and struggle that may have worked in the public space of the traditional city may not be applicable in an environment where the very existence of this space is put into question by privatization, enclosure, and technologies of information and surveillance” (Quinby 2011: 14). The book is beautifully written and tightly edited. It is the kind of intervention one sees more often in the French public debate than in our academically overdetermined Anglo-American publishing world. It is also meaningfully illustrated by Quinby’s own photographs that explore the postmetropolitan ecologies on their own terms.

Importantly, Quinby asserts that “the fragmented and decentered spaces of the postmetropolitan region of today are marked by an increasing diversity of cultures, identities, classes, and issues” (Quinby 2011: 14-5) which may open up new options for radical politics. As a stern warning, moreover, to the smug core-centred urbanism of the traditional Left, Quinby adds that those postmetropolitan spaces out there are not self-contained. There “is no longer much of an ‘outside’ to the dispersed postmetropolis of today. The new decentered space of the postmetropolis is everywhere, reconfiguring both centre and periphery within a new spatial and temporal order” (Quinby 2011: 15) From this grows the necessity “of developing a better political practice”.

Quinby does not provide final and completely satisfactory answers to these challenges. An essay of less than 150 pages can only mark a temporary way station in a larger debate. But Quinby’s essay is an important step forward in our understanding of just what may be at the heart of the new world many of us inhabit. We are guided rather elegantly through a world populated by the classics of urban theory and empirical research. Quinby effortlessly interconnects Mumford, Castells, Fishman, Harvey, Lefebvre, Debord, Soja, Sassen and others into a very readable tale of space, time and suburbanization. Among the notable points Quinby makes from this massive body of work is the imperative of connecting Debord’s radical thoughts about “cities, space and time … with an analysis of the critical role of temporality to capitalist command, as well as of the potentiality of antagonism in the present” (Quinby 2011: 106). For Quinby himself, this combination leads to a new reading of the work of Italian Autonomist Antonio Negri and an “understanding of the urban environment as a time suffused with antagonism and resistance”. The ensuing discussion is premised on the idea that “the essence of capitalist time is that it is an antagonistic imposition of measurement upon living labour for the purpose of extracting value” (Quinby 2011: 117). For Negri (and by extension Quinby), the focus of today’s capitalism (in a world of the “real subsumption” of labour under capital) is increasingly on “immaterial labour” and the “inclusion of communication, consumption and subjectivity into the production cycle” (Quinby 2011: 119), from where new politics and political collectives and subjects (“the multitude”) will inevitably rise. There is a long and extensive debate in Marxist and post-Marxist circles on these developments, to which Quinby refers, which do not concern us here specifically. I rather want to stick to the question of how Quinby sees the new political terrain of the postmetropolitan, suburban world in which we live.

Of key relevance in this context is the Lefebvrian notion of an “emergence of an urban order, but one bearing the possibility of a new global relation of centrality for all” (Quinby 2011: 72). From this insight stems the further observation that “[w]ithin the postmetropolis, a reconfiguration of the meaning of urbanism is taking place. Centrality is increasingly reserved for immaterial networks of power and the physical assets that support them, while bodily existence within the postmetropolis is increasingly moved to the periphery” (Quinby 2011: 75). It is, of course, from this contradiction that the original “cry and a demand” (Lefebvre 1996: 158) of the right to the city was first articulated by the physically sequestered students of Nanterre in 1968 who demanded to have part of the “immaterial networks of power” that had gained access to the centre of the city (and hence the opportunities society offered).

I am reading Quinby, then, alongside rather than in opposition to the spatial justice literature – I am thinking specifically of Edward Soja’s Seeking Spatial Justice (2010). In theoretical terms, I see resonances between the immaterial sociality of the Postmetropolis as described by Quinby and the governmentality of neoliberalization in which suburbs play a pertinent role (Peck 2011). In more practical terms of suburban governance, the edited collection on International Perspectives on Suburbanization: A Post-Suburban World? edited by Phelps and Wu (2011) is a helpful companion here to consult. Likewise, Ekers et al. (2012) also attempt to move post-suburbia beyond the usual conceptual confines of a North American imaginary and -- while not insensitive to geographic and historical difference -- to establish: “What are the universal and particular forces shaping suburbanization processes in different urban-regions?” (Ekers et al. 2012: 407). For Ekers and his co-authors, these forces can be understood to be harnessed in the three modalities of the state, capital accumulation and privatized authoritarianism, which, for Quinby perhaps translate into he specific “spatiotemporal ecology of the postmetropolis [that] has subsumed the entire built environment of the traditional city within a suburban-like order of horizontality and dispersal” (2011: 129).

We will indeed need to pay attention to the “horizontal strategies of surveillance, dispersal, and consumption” that contextualize much of politics and governance in the postsuburban landscape of today (Quinby 2011: 139). In this manner, Quinby concludes his essay: “In response to the unlimited potential of centrality and multitudinous subjectivity, capitalism has reconfigured all of urban space with a vast, new suburbia; a geography of centrelessness and dispersal designed to materially encode the irreversible temporality of accumulation and command. Perhaps, within this new temporal web, the struggle against postmetropolitan space is in fact a struggle against capitalist capture and command” (Quinby 2011: 141-2).


Ekers, M., Hamel, P. & Keil, R. (2012). Governing Suburbia: Modalities and Mechanisms of Suburban Governance. Regional Studies. 46 (3): 405-422.

Lefebvre, H. (1996). Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Peck J. (2011). Neoliberal suburbanism: Frontier space. Urban Geography 32 (6): 884-919.

Phelps, N.A. & Wu, F. (2011). Perspectives on Suburbanization: A Post-Suburban World? Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Quinby, R. (2011). Time and the Suburbs: The Politics of Built Environments and the Future of Dissent. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing.

Soja, E. (2010). Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.