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Diffracting Spaces and the Right to the Cities

– This article is part of the graduate seminar series The Right to the City 2018-2019 – 

In the interesting work of reflection and analysis that is “The Right to the City”, David Harvey (2008) highlights the connections between society, capitalism and urban transformation. Harvey turns to Marx’s notion of surplus value, capital and production to point to the role that capitalism and neoliberalism play in the transformation of the material space of the city through a rearticulation of the city’s social/labor forces. This articulation of value production and consumption entails a process of violence, dispossession and displacement that effectively deprives certain populations of their right to the city (Harvey 2008, 33-37). Following his argument, it is not hard to find resonances and similarities with the city, and in particular with the area where I reside: Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West. This area can attest not only to the urban expansion and transformation of the city over the last few decades, such as the merging of previous areas and districts, but also to the increasing pace in a process of gentrification that is displacing certain populations and materially transforming its landscape.

However, what is this right to the city? How can we define an urban intervention? And how can we connect these two ideas to the violence and dispossession I mentioned above? In Harvey’s argument, the right to the city is a notion that spans beyond individual access to urban spaces and resources; as he claims, the right to the city “is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.… A common rather than an individual right … [that] depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanization” (Harvey 2008, 23). Nonetheless, in light of the violence and dispossession underlying certain urban articulations, and the conditions of invisibility and erasure endured by large portions of the population, can we really talk about the city in the singular? I am not referring here to just those populations physically displaced by urban speculation and gentrification, but also to those lives and experiences that are silenced and cast off within the heart of the city; people who were there for generations and people who recently arrived; people embedded in the urban matrix who somehow are disconnected and banned from its private and public spaces. That is, is it the same city for an upper-middle class citizen and for a migrant in whom race, religion or class differential markers meet? Is a park or a street the same for a woman crossing it in the middle of the night as it is for a man? Are those same spaces, day or night, the same for gender non-conforming people? And for people of color? How are those same parks, streets, squares, or even government and official buildings, experienced by those who are dispossessed? By this I do not mean that these categories are clear cut; these questions refer to experiences that crisscross, sprout from and merge with each other, that evolve and change generating urban spaces as much as those urban spaces generate them. At this point it would be interesting to approach the notion of intra-action (Barad 2007). As opposed to the idea of interaction, where two or more independent elements interact with each other, in intra-action those same elements do not precede that moment, but sprout from and are generated in that very intra-action[1]. A city, thus, is never just a city, but multiple, ever-evolving cities composed of multiple, diffracting spaces and temporalities the material conditions of which are constituted by, as much as they are constitutive of, people’s lives and experiences.

Along this line, and given the multiplicity of these cities and their urban spaces, what could be then said of an urban intervention? These spaces and experiences do not solidify once they are constituted, but continue to intra-act diffracting in multiple, everchanging spaces, temporalities and experiences; and this opens the path for a transformative approach to the idea of an urban intervention. Thus, urban interventions can range from collective manifestations of resistance to individual actions; their materiality can derive from taking over or squatting in enclosed or privatized spaces, or from protests’ transient disruption of the city’s temporal rhythms; they can take the shape of art installations in public or private buildings or streets, community gardens in abandoned lots or group demonstrations. And these interventions not only direct themselves toward the physical development of urban planning, but also toward a right to appear[2]: to appear in those urban spaces to which portions of the population are denied access, by law, by fear or by any other means; it is a right to appear and to make visible the violence and dispossession entailed by certain policies of privatization and exclusion. In other words, it is a call for the right to the multiple, diffracting spaces we inhabit. It is a call for the right to the cities.

Written by Alvaro Lopez



Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press. 2014.

— “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart.” Parallax 20 (3): 168–87.

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Harvard University Press.

Harvey, David. 2008. “The Right to the City.” New Left Review 53: 23–40.

Kleinman, Adam. 2012. “Intra-Actions: Interview with Karen Barad.” Mousse 34: 76–81.



[1] See Barad (2014) and Kleinman (2012) for further explanations on the idea of intra-action.

[2] Butler (2015) explores in depth the right to appear and its connection space, collectivity, the media and the performative dimension of assembly.