Hybrid Natures And Cyborg Cities

The metabolic requirements of a city can be defined as the materials and commodities needed to sustain the city's inhabitants at home, at work and at play .The metabolic cycle is not completed until wastes and residues of daily life have been removed and disposed of with a minimum of nuisance and hazard.

(Wolman 1965:179) A barrel of crude oil sold for about $13 in 1998. The same quantity of whole blood, in its "crude" state, would sell for more than $20,000 [in Manhattan, NY].

(Starr 1998)

When mobilizing the twin vehicles of "metabolism" and "circulation" from a historical-materialist epistemological perspective, the modernist tropes of "nature" and "society" transform radically. Modernity's bifurcation, separation, and binarization is recognized by historical materialism as exactly what it is: an image, a metaphor, a trope; one that can be and is mobilized for all manner of cultural, social, or political projects (Kaika 2005). A dialectical approach recognises both the radical non-identity of actants (human and nonhuman) enrolled in socio-metabolic processes within an assemblage, while recognising the social, cultural, and political power relations embodied relationally in these socio-natural imbroglios. The production of (entangled) things through metabolic circulation is necessarily a process of fusion, of the making of "heterogeneous assemblages", of constructing longer or shorter networks. In fact, both "hybridity" and "cyborg" are misleading as tropes, and may even be implicated in radically reproducing the underlying binary representation of the world. Hence, the bracketing of "hybrid" and "cyborg" in the title of this section refers exactly to the "excess of meaning" inscribed in coding the city as either "hybrid" or "cyborg".

Metabolic circulation, then, is the socially mediated process of environmental, including technological, transformation and trans-configuration, through which all manner of "agents" are mobilized, attached, collectivized, and networked. The heterogeneous assemblages that emerge, as moments in the accelerating and intensifying circuitry of metabolic vehicles, are central to a historical-geographical materialist ontology:

As plants, animals, minerals, air, light, etc., in theory form a part of human consciousness, partly as objects of natural science, partly as objects of art... so they also form in practice a part of human life and human activity. Man lives physically only by those products of nature; they may appear in the form of food, heat, clothing, housing, etc. The universality of man appears in practice as the universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body: (1) as a direct means of life, and (2) as the matter, object, and instrument of his life activity. Nature is the inorganic body of man, that is nature insofar it is not the human body. Man lives by nature. This means that nature is his body with which he must remain in perpetual process in order not to die.

(Marx 1982:63)

As Luke (1999:43) argues, "the conditions of associating humans and nonhumans in ancient, Asiatic, feudal, or capitalist relations of collectivization can thus be used to understand how power, knowledge, and conflict co-modified people and their things in any given society". These assemblages of humans and non-humans, of dead labour and inert materials, are reminiscent of the "hybrids" and the "cyborgs" of Latour and Haraway, respectively (see Luke 1999). However, while Haraway asks penetrating questions as to why "cyborgs" are produced the way they are and the relations of power inscribed in these imbroglios, this question remains silent in Latour's work. For him, the key issue centres on transforming the "constitutional" arrangements through which human and non-human actants become mobilized or enrolled (Latour 2004). In sum, while Latour defends a democratic republic of heterogeneous associations, Haraway maintains a perspective that emerges from a radically different ontological position. A deep ontological divide opens here. As Benedikte Zitouni (2004) convincingly argues:

Haraway views any entity as an embodiment of relations, an implosion, the threads of which should be teased apart in order to understand it. Whereas Latour views any entity as a piece of matter that is continuously affected and that contracts links with a larger networks that allows it to live, to be. On the one hand, the entity crystallizes the network; on the other hand the entity is supported by the network. Haraway studies the network in order to define the entity; Latour studies that same network in order to define the entity's consistency and persistence.Dialectics, congealment, crystals, prisms, representations are not possible tools any longer for urban studies but instead we view pieces of matter, of any kind, that act, react and interact with one another, that gain their consistency, persistence and existence or lose them through the affects and links to other agents. Power differences and inequality can no longer be stated as such, as a departure point into the city but have to be explained through the many actions and relations between objects, humans and non humans. There is nothing behind any space or agent, only attachments aside of it that make it stronger or weaker, allow it to exist or lead it to perish.

(Zitouni 2004)

It is in this latter sense that we wish to see the city as a metabolic circulatory process that materializes as an implosion of socio-natural relations, a process which is organized through socially articulated networks and conduits whose origin, movement, and position is articulated through complex political, social, economic, and cultural relations. These relations are invariably infused with myriad configurations of power that saturate material, symbolic, and imaginary (or imagined) practices.

Studies on urban metabolism have often uncritically pursued the standard industrial ecology perspective based on some input-output model of the flow of "things" (see Table 2.1 on London's metabolism). Such analysis merely poses the issue, and fails to theorize the making of the urban as a socio-environmental metabolism (see, for example, Weisz et al. 2001). While insightful in terms of quantifying the urbanization of nature, it fails to theorize the process of urbanization as a social process of transforming and reconfiguring nature. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to state that most processes of transformation of nature are intimately linked to the process of urbanization and to the urbanization of nature. From this perspective, it is surely strange to note that relatively little empirical or theoretical work has been undertaken that explicitly attempts to theorise environmental change and urban change as fundamentally interconnected processes.

Modern urbanization or the city can be articulated as a process of geographically arranged socio-environmental metabolisms. These are mobilized through relations

Table 2.1 The metabolism of Greater London (7,000,000 inhabitants)


Tonnes per year

Fuel (oil equivalents


















Bricks, blocks, sand, tarmac





Tonnes per year

Industry and demolition


Household, civic and commercial


Wet digested sewage sludge


Carbon dioxide gas


Sulfur dioxide gas


Nitrogen oxide gas


Source: www.global-vision.org/city/metabolism.html (H.Girardet).

Source: www.global-vision.org/city/metabolism.html (H.Girardet).

that combine the accumulation of socio-natural use and exchange-values, which shape, produce, maintain, and transform the metabolic vehicles that permit the expanded reproduction of the urban as a historically determined but contingent form of life. Such socially driven material processes produce extended and continuously reconfigured intended and non-intended spatial (networked and scalar) arrangements and are saturated with heterogeneous symbolic (representational) and imaginary (wish images) orders, albeit "overdetermined" (Althusser 1969) by the generalized commodity form that underpins the capitalist "nature" of urbanization. The phantasmagorical (spectacular) commodity-form that most socio-natural assemblages take not only permits and facilitates a certain discourse and practice of metabolism, but also, perhaps more importantly, "naturalize" the production of particular socio-environmental conditions and relations. For example, it seems much easier to imagine an apocalyptic environmental future of humankind (of the kind perpetuated by global climate change pundits, biodiversity preservation activists, or GM-warriors) than to imagine a political change in the actually existing social ordering of the metabolic process, one that would imply a reconstruction of the produced environments.

The urbanization of nature is largely predicated upon a commodification of parts of nature while, in the process, producing new metabolic interactions and shaping both symbolic and material socio-natural interactions. The urbanization of nature necessitates both ecological transformation and social transformation. Urbanized nature propels the diverse physical, chemical, and biological "natural" flows and characteristics of nature into the realm of commodity and money circulation with its abstract qualities and concrete social power relations. Produced nature becomes legally defined and standardized, according to "scientific" politically and socio-culturally defined norms that are enshrined in binding legislation. Homogenization, standardization, and legal codification are essential to the commodification process. The urbanization process makes nature enter squarely into the sphere of money and cultural capital and its associated power relations, and redraws socio-natural power relations in important new ways. Indeed, the political-ecological history of many cities can be written from the perspective of the need to urbanize and domesticate nature and the parallel necessity to push the ecological frontier outward as the city expanded (Swyngedouw 2004). As such the political-ecological process produces both a new urban and rural socio-nature. The city's growth, and the process of nature's urbanization are closely associated with successive waves of ecological conquest and the extension of urban socio-ecological frontiers. Local, regional, and national socio-natures are combined with engineering narratives, economic discourses and practices, land speculation, geo-political tensions, and global money flows. This metabolic circulation process is deeply entrenched in the political-ecology of the local and national state, the international divisions of labour and power, and in local, regional, and global socio-natural networks and processes.

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