City-State: Setting and Sovereignty in China Miéville’s The City & the City

MAR 24, 2017 | 4:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue


4406: English Student Lounge


March 24, 2017: 4:00 PM




The most influential recent theory of extraterritoriality can be found in the work of Giorgio Agamben, whose contentions about the spatial logic of the “inclusive exclusion” show up in artistic and scholarly works across many media and disciplines. This paper stages a strong critique of Agamben’s political theory, except that the medium for that critique is novelistic, not philosophical. Its argument centers on the metropolitan narrative settings of British speculative fiction writer China Miéville -- who also happens to be a socialist activist with a PhD in International Relations. Miéville’s settings, I argue, reduce what Aristotle called political partnership to its Western ideal type—the city-state or urban polis. His novels take place in many zones: floating pirate utopias, perpetual runaway trains, present-day London — and in cities that are not in one country or another, but in both. Those settings have many implications, most of them literary; but they are also legible as allegorical critiques of decisionist theories of sovereignty, like Agamben’s, that identify extraterritorial spaces with coercive states of emergency and see such states of emergency as telling the truth of sovereignty in general. The chapter features an interpretation of Miéville’s hybrid noir novel, The City & the City (2009), embedding that reading in a discussion of the techniques of secondary world developed in his trilogy of “New Weird” novels (2000-2004) set in the fictional world of Bas-Lag. Miéville’s novels certainly take extraterritorial shape but, in them, political power is divisible, distributed across physical and administrative space, and far from the only game in town.

Talk by Matthew Hart, Columbia University