AuthorGough, Daniel

Cities have become "good to think with," perhaps almost too good to think with. Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid note that academic and other public actors use "the urban" as a diagnostic for contemporary life as well as a means to intervene upon it. They write: "Whether in academic discourse or in the public sphere, the urban has become a privileged lens through which to interpret, map and, indeed, to attempt to influence contemporary social, economic, political and environmental trends." (1) This suggests why urban life is a key object for the study of broad cultural and political projects, among them nationalism, modernity, development, and globalization. Adopting multiple disciplinary approaches, the articles in this special issue examine how urban life is both an object of knowledge and a site of social, aesthetic, and ideological invention. Focused on Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, this issue shows how middle-class paulistanos (residents of Sao Paulo) make meaning from their urban landscape in relation to their global geopolitics. (2)

In Sao Paulo, such meaning-making often manifests in the form of what we call experimental urbanity: emergent or repurposed social forms such as artistic practices, activist movements, or infrastructural innovations that frame collective urban life. As a field of experience, the urban entails both "structural aspects... materially embodied in the development of the built environment" and "cultural aspects... based in the micro-physics of the everyday encounter." (3) Urbanity, in turn, can be understood as the processes that relate the structural to the cultural, a city's built environment to its inhabitants. (4) Focusing on cultural production, we explain how, through the interplay of material and symbolic processes, artists, audiences, planners, businessmen, and activists have experimented with performing, creating, socializing, politicizing, and regulating Sao Paulo's urban life since the early twentieth century. The articles focus on middle-class actors in Sao Paulo's "expanded center," an area that underwent dramatic infrastructural and demographic changes at the turn of the twentieth century and has since continued to evolve in ways that are distinct from the urbanization of Sao Paulo's periphery, where the struggle over urban resources is constant. Experimental urbanity became a way to describe the social forms that connect aesthetics, urban space, and contentious politics.

The dual valence in the Portuguese word experimentar, which translates as both "to experiment" and "to experience," also informed our focus on experimentalism. We note this polysemy here to consider how experimental urbanity is not just about invention and novelty, but also routinized experiences within daily urban life. To be sure, the experiential nature of experimentation has long been implied by scholars who have framed the city as a laboratory of social relations or psychological states. (5) Yet, many analyses of urbanism convey a premature distinction between the "micro-physics of the everyday encounter" and the presumably top-down approach of "sovereign planning," interpreting experimentation as the latter. (6) We suggest that this distinction does not hold up in Sao Paulo and might not be appropriate for the Global South more generally. Planners, engineers, and politicians are always trying to fine-tune urban life, but they do so in the context of their own and others' daily experiences. Experimental urbanity, in other words, is the result of both topdown and bottom-up worldviews and practices--intentional experiments and improvisational experiences--that see the objects, maps, and ultimately people in cities as malleable.

Although we emphasize the experimental character of urbanity, we hesitate characterizing that experimentalism as solely emancipatory or domineering. While every urban experiment has a politics, none has a guaranteed outcome. The creation of new aesthetic and political practices, as well as the containment and management of these practices, generates experimental urbanity. Sao Paulo's upper and middle classes have historically been concerned with various forms of sensoria that are "out of control," voicing since the 1970s their unease with urban sprawl or, more recently, launching moral campaigns against visual and sound pollution. (7) This journal issue considers a variety of experiments, from ephemeral or grassroots movements that surge and recede to infrastructural projects whose existence long outlasts the ideas upon which they are founded. In some case studies, it is unclear whether experiments are the means to new forms of social life, political and/or artistic ends in themselves, or both. Embroiled in everyday life, urban residents are both agents and objects of experimentation.

Our argument is not that Sao Paulo is a unique site of experimental urbanity but rather that, in a rapidly changing city, experimentation is a mechanism by which residents respond to and alter their social, political, and aesthetic realities. In this sense, despite Sao Paulo's "exceptional" relationship to the rest of Brazil, discussed later in this introduction, experimental urbanity offers a window into the dynamics of aesthetic politics in the Global South. Our articles show how individuals, built environments, social relations, and "distributions of the sensible" are objectified and mobilized, although to what end is neither predetermined nor even entirely predictable. (8) Sao Paulo's experimental urbanity, moreover, demonstrates how urban life shapes the contours of political and social possibility in the Global South. While aesthetic considerations of Global South cities have often taken a backseat to political economy, this special issue insists that artistic, sensorial, and symbolic (re)engineerings of the city are crucial to various national and global political projects, particularly as they congeal around urban middle-class subjectivities. (9) Cultural production, we contend, is not a mere appendage of political influence but an unruly zone of meaning-making in itself.


The articles in this issue largely focus on cultural producers who belong to Sao Paulo's middle class, a category that has been defined by nationalist ideology and identity politics as much as it has been by demography. Middle-class subjects, such as artists, musicians, engineers, urban planners, students, activists, businessmen, and journalists (members of what social scientists in other contexts have called the "creative class" (10)), have played a key role in shaping the built environment and sociabilities in Sao Paulo. In turn, Sao Paulo's downtown urban spaces have cultivated middle-class sensibilities. Experimental urbanity is a potentially powerful explanation for how class, as a set of dispositions and inclusionary/exclusionary practices, emerges through urban space." Additional connections between class and race, gender, or sexuality are further explored by individual authors.

As in many locations in the Global South, the question of the Brazilian middle class has been at the center of anxious considerations about the nation's place within the global political order. Brazilian economists have focused on the middle class as an "internal market" that can drive consumer demand for national industry, necessary for the country's economic development. (12) Consequently, the cultural markers of middle-class subjectivity are often interpreted as indicators of Brazilian national "success." As Ricardo Lopez has noted, this measurement of "success" relies on Global-North notions of an authentic middle class, resulting in an international global hierarchy where North American nations inevitably end up at the top." Within Brazil, the middle class defined as such has, since the early twentieth century, been identified with Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo has been not only the region with the highest per capita income, but also the city and region where middle-class cultural projects have gained the most traction. Such projects include the economic ambitions that fueled rapid expansions in industrial production and, later, finance capitalism, as well as broadcast media and other culture industries that have promoted middle-class lifestyles. In this way, middle-classness became part of the idiom of Sao Paulo's cultural and ideological identity.

Modes of class distinction have evolved over time in Sao Paulo. The city's nascent middle class in the early to mid-twentieth century carefully managed the symbolic relations around labor and politics in order to maintain respectability in the collective view of lower as well as upper classes.' (4) It was at this moment that Sao Paulo emerged as a political and economic force to reckon with in Brazil, the leading entrepot of Brazil's most important export, coffee, but also a quickly developing industrial center. (15) Industrialization spurred urban migration--Sao Paulo's population leapt from 65,000 in 1890 to 580,000 in 1920, surpassing that of Mexico City, Havana, and Lima--and the coformation of working and middle classes. (16) As the city's population swelled from just over two million in 1950 to nearly six million in 1970 and structural adjustments opened Brazil to new products, middle-class status continued to be defined by and acquired through the consumption of foreign commodities and culture. (17) Although the paulistano middle class has often displayed partisan and stylistic diversity, certain features remain constant: its anxieties about status (as individuals, as a class, as a city), as well as its identification with diligence, economic stability, political influence, cultural capital, and a higher moral ground.

Another constant relates to the ways that class, race, and region have functioned as markers of social difference in Brazil. Sao Paulo's middle-class ideology, modernist aesthetics, racially...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT