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Saskia Sassen
1 June 2011

Cities in Today’s Global Modernity: a Novel Assemblage of Territory, Authority, and Rights.

Cities have long been sites for conflict, from war and the oppressions of dictators to racisms and religious hatreds. And yet, where national states have historically responded by militarizing conflict, cities have tended to triage conflict through commerce and civic activity. Often the overcoming of urban conflicts became the source for an expanded civic-ness: this happened in Cairo in February 2011. But in Benghazi it took a very different form: full possession of the territory of the city. And in Gaza it is yet another trajectory: one which shows us the limits of superior military force – no matter how powerful an army Israel has, it cannot unleash its full force onto Gaza. In its diversity these three cases signal that the city functions as a sort of weak regime: it cannot overcome superior military force but it can obstruct it. People versus machines in an open field is a different condition from people in a dense urban setting versus the same machines.

The repositioning of the city after centuries of gradual subordination to the nation-state is part of a larger disassembling of existing organisational logics. This disassembling is also unsettling the logic that assembled territory, authority and rights into the dominant organisational format of our times – the nation-state. These shifts are happening even as national states continue to be major markers of the geopolitical landscape and the material organisation of territory. But beneath this continuity of the national-state of our early modernity, are the shifting grounds leading to novel assemblages of territory, authority and rights.

Saskia Sassen

is the Robert S Lynd Professor of Sociology and co-chairs The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com).

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