I’m reading a booklet about ‘place branding’. Part of me wants to reach for an eraser whenever I read this term: it has a cringeworthiness about it. However, upon reading further I realise there’s more going on than glitzy promotions or some neoliberal ruse. While reading, I am also dipping into some ideas about ‘boosterism’ and with reference to Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, John Rennie Short launches into his essay about urban representation (“Urban Imagineers: Boosterism and the Representation of Cities” in The Urban Growth Machine). It seems that in exploring ‘place writing’ (I often have to remind myself that this is actually what my task is!) some consideration of boosterism and its offspring, place branding, is warranted. Perhaps the most interesting material I have read about place branding is Simon Anholt’s work on nation brands: there’s value in these ideas in how, for example, the impacts of human rights abuses can impact on a nation’s reputation, or how representations of poverty and conflict can mobilise focused international aid. I was reading an article on The Economist’s website about Italy’s descent on global rankings (thank you Mr Berlusconi) and while trying to locate that story I’ve noted an article about Australia‘s floundering on the global stage over asylum seekers (which implies concerns with people smuggling and diplomatic relations with Indonesia). Such reports are indicative of regimes of representation that are both spatially and temporally contingent.
I don’t mind a bit of boosterism. New York and Paris, for example, have basked in it for centuries and I enjoy the odd hyperbolic expression founded in some kind of civic pride or purpose in a city or place. Brisbane is a bit newer to the boosterism stage and, I think, less certain in its place branding and its inheritance. Short’s essay considers boosterism as urban representation, which he defines as how we understand the city and how we conceptualise it. Where and how we live is captured in our acts of representation – “space is turned into place through acts of discursive representation” – and place has particularity through our acts of description and evaluation. In a deeply cultural sense, it’s how meaning is made and shared. However, boosterism and place branding are probably not deeply cultural in this sense despite their positivism.
Short points out that regimes of representation can, sometimes, result in the foreclosure of alternatives. I note these can manifest in reductionist sloganeering (meaningless?) rather than potent aphorism (meaningful?). As Short says, who can argue with those powerful representations of urban renewal and revitalisation as life saving surgery? Now, as the new geographies of late capitalism overwrite our cities imposing its own imagination (or lack thereof), our private and collective acts of reading and writing the city seem more pressing – almost begging for those alternative stories to emerge from beneath the bitumen and through the miasma of car exhaust. Perhaps now is a good time for a crisis of meaning, which as Short explains, happens when systems of meaning are changing rapidly. To my mind, a global city – an effective brand – is a city that is globally minded and locally mindful. I could go on about equality, social justice and fairness in our cities. However, like Short, I am interested in alternative representations of the city and engaging with “urban imagineers who can represent the just, fair city”.
At this juncture my thinking has become slightly messy because what lies before me is both a matrix of representations (plans, maps, stories, inscriptions etc) and the materiality of the city which seems more like media (carrier) than place. The Derrida texts lining my shelves seem smug. Sometimes his postulations about hermetic language and logocentrism ( Of Grammatology – words refer to other words, not to things or thoughts) can slap us hard across the face. This renders the challenge of urban representation and meaning all the more strategically potent.