16. The many lives of degrado:  the affective, aesthetic and semiotic materiality of urban decay

The many lives of degrado: the affective, aesthetic and semiotic materiality of
urban decay

Roberto D’Alba, MA student in Sociology and Social Research, University of Trento.
email: roberto.dalba@studenti.unitn.it

Andrea Pavoni, assistant research professor at DINAMIA’CET, Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, Portugal
email: andrea.pavoni@iscte-iul.pt 

“If we only pay attention to the rollout of contemporary spatial products as exemplars of urban neoliberalism, we might miss opportunities to see something else taking place, vulnerable and provisional though it may be” (Simone 2016, 151).

The question regarding how a city ought to look and feel normatively shapes expectations about its quality of life, including the bodies, behaviours, and places that supposedly enhance it or deteriorate it. Urban spaces are meant to be beautiful, comfortable and liveable, and these concepts are usually played out against an all-encompassing notion carrying a simultaneously physical, aesthetic and moral connotation: urban decay, blight or degrado urbano. The enhancement and valorisation of the aesthetic/affective quality of urban spaces — their atmosphere — have always been the concern of policymakers, planners, cultural entrepreneurs, social movements and local communities. Yet, only in the last decades the task of controlling, preventing and repressing urban decay has become an imperative of urban politics and discourses, as a negative counterpoint of controversial juridical and securitarian approaches (e.g. Broken Windows, quality-of-life policing, anti-social behaviour regulations, decoro urbano). These approaches have been criticised from various perspectives, by researchers and activists alike, highlighting the violent dynamics of social exclusion, marginalisation and securitisation they trigger, and the exploitative processes urban gentrification, touristification and financial valorisation they accompany. 

Although we second these efforts to deconstruct urban decay by addressing its political economy and pernicious ideology, this panel wishes to move beyond these necessary critiques by attending to the actual materiality of urban decay: the many lives of degrado. From denigrated nightlife (e.g. ‘malamovida’) to the ruinophilic fascination for degraded places (e.g. https://rottentrips.net), from anti-degrado groups (e.g. http://www.romafaschifo.com) to the reappropriation of degrado as a mimetic strategy to contrast gentrification (e.g counterpreservation, Sandler, 2016) or as an affirmation of belonging by those marginalised by its politics (e.g trap music; Molinari and Borreani, 2021), urban decay materialises in various and contradictory ways. Paraphrasing Tolstoy: all decorous places are alike, but each degraded place is degraded in its own way, a heterogeneous variety that calls for ethnographically attending to its senses, affects, bodies, technologies, aesthetics, geographies, and violence. We challenge contributors to explore the various crystallisations of urban decay in the city, by looking at the way the narratives and atmospheres of degrado are actually experienced, felt and lived by those bodies, human and nonhuman alike, who (re)produce, patrol, endure, or contest it. We encourage interdisciplinary contributions interested in ethnographically addressing matters of urban decay, as well as theoretical, ethical or methodological reflections about how to engage with this concept. Innovative visual, multi-sensorial, or artistic methodologies and presentations are welcome. 

            Open questions:

  • How is degrado endured, contested, or reappropriated?
  • What are the affects composing the urban atmospheres of degrado, and how to account for them?
  • How does degrado ‘select’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘exclude’ bodies, behaviours and places?
  • What human and nonhuman subjectivities emerge from degrado?
  • What kind of practices, discourses, norms, conflicts and counter-narratives emerge and crystallise around degrado
  • What kind of affective, semantic or sensorial account of degrado can be provided through ethnographic and qualitative research?
  • What are the methodological and ethical challenges with exploring degrado?
  • How do the physical, aesthetic and moral dimensions of urban decay interplay in different contexts?
  • What differences, similarities and peculiarities can be found, between notions of urban decay or urban blight, and degrado urbano?
  • What happens at the threshold between degrado and decoro, where decoro decays and urban decay becomes decorous?  

Keywords: degrado urbano, urban decay, urban liveability, quality-of-life policing, decoro, atmosphere 

Sub-disciplines or cross-disciplinary areas of concern: urban geography, urban ethnography, night-time studies, posthuman studies, affect studies, critical legal theory

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