Encountering the “Other Spaces” in China Miéville’s The City & The City

Kristen Shaw


The first pages of China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City introduce the reader to detective and protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlú as he investigates the murder of a young woman whose face has been split open down the middle: “curving under her jaw, a low red split.” The violent splitting of the woman’s face is, at first glance, defined and clear, almost painterly in its execution: the wound “track[s] precisely along her flesh like the sweep of a paintbrush.” A closer look, however, reveals the true violence of the act as Borlú notices the transformation of the wound, under the overhang of her mouth, into a “jagged, ugly [...] deep torn hole” (Miéville 7). The image of the woman’s split face is an appropriate metaphor for the splitting and recombining of space that occurs within The City & The City — a novel that tells the story of two Eastern European cities that inhabit “identical topological space but differ in their mental geographies” (Hourigan 158). The “cleaved” cities share the same geographic space, but not the same legal and social space, and the distinction between the two persists due to “social belief” in their differing “mental geographies” (Hourigan 158). Like the topology of the woman’s face, the spaces of The City & The City, though officially distinguished by clean and official delineations, are in fact “split” by violence, by a disciplinary delineation of space that is both ideological and material in nature. Violence is imposed onto space itself and is thereby imposed onto those who occupy that space.


This paper explores the production of Otherness through spatial practices, examining the extent to which the delineation of spatial — and correspondingly ideological — border zones produces particular types of normative subjects and citizens in The City & The City. In addition, this paper proposes that Miéville’s text models a politics of spatial occupation in which citizens reclaim agency and assert their right to space by navigating and occupying urban spaces in ways that diverge from officially prescribed forms of spatial dwelling. I argue that resistance to hegemonic modes of dwelling is possible through oppositional spatial practices. Such practices require a two-fold methodology: first, learning the rhythm of the “mapped” city and, second, infecting the dominant spatial and ideological organization(s) of the city with arrhythmic trajectories — a tactic that disrupts oppressive coding processes. This practice, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, involves transforming the city into a smooth and rhizomatic space as opposed to a striated one. Striated spaces are encoded by normative institutions, like the state, in order to manage and dictate how individuals can and should occupy space in accordance with the dominant regime. Conversely, smooth and rhizomatic space involves creating alternative pathways that defy official mapping strategies and subvert borders and boundaries (Deleuze and Guattari 370-1). As such, employing smooth or rhizomatic space enables individuals to “re-map” space in a way that resists institutional power and enacts diverse forms of socio-political agency. This transformation is never total; rather, it is a change produced by a particular use of space. Unconventional and indeed oppositional uses of space produce “alternate modes of social ordering that are expressions of a utopian spatial play” and that deny the spatial “capture” produced by national borders both material and ideological (Hetherington 12).


Furthermore, this paper also focuses on the different kinds of rhythms that are produced within and by the fictional city spaces of The City & The City and how the rhythms of everyday life — or, the everyday uses of space — can deconstruct the circumscribed and monitored simulacrum, the policed artifice, produced by the dominant system. I will consider both the city and its citizens as bodies, bodies that form a relation that, to quote Henri LeFebvre, produces a “bouquet” or “garland of rhythms” (Rhythmanalysis 20). In other words, the spaces and subjects of The City & The City are characterized by and deploy two different and distinct kinds of rhythms. This interplay of rhythms changes both the spaces of the novel and the subjects that occupy and move across them. Space is not a neutral container but, rather, is reproduced through different social and political forces and movements (LeFebvre, Production 73, 93-4). Similarly, the subjects of these spaces are equally transformed by their engagement with space and its rhythms, creating a mutually constituted interplay between space and subjects. I intend to show how this “bouquet” is put to use in Miéville’s novel in order to gesture towards the applicability of these theories to the use of space in everyday life.


Heterotopias and The City & The City

China Miéville’s novel The City & The City takes place in two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma; two cities that share the same geographical space while maintaining entirely distinct cultural identities. In order for this arrangement to function in any practical way, citizens are trained from childhood to “un-see” (Miéville 14) the geographical and cultural Others that populate the other side of the street, that drive along the same roadways; in some cases, these Others even occupy the same buildings. The resulting relation between Ul Qoman and Besź citizens is one of selective blindness that illustrates the extent to which ideological and institutional borderlines — both material and psychic — contribute to the production of geographies and, correspondingly, spatial practices. The (non-)geographical borders of Ul Qoma and Besźel both embody and symbolize what science fiction scholar Neil Easterbrook terms the “overdetermined systems” of biopolitical control employed by the state to control and maintain clear boundaries of citizenship (67). In other words, the borders that differentiate Ul Qoma from Besźel produce a structural ground for social and political relations. In his article examining the politics of heterotopias in the works of Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and Robert A. Heinlein, Easterbrook refers to this structure as the “doxa, the social syntax, the epistemic ground, the foundational order that allows us to conceptualize our world” (67). The geographical and ideological borders that Easterbrook articulates in this article function in a similar manner to those in The City & The City insofar as they enforce a disciplinary code that delineates the “proper” citizen from the national Other.


In this manner, ideology is made visible through the metaphor of the geographically cross-hatched city spaces. The boundaries that distinguish Besź from Ul Qoman land, like any contemporary border site, represent ideological norms that delimit and reinforce the logos of the state. These aesthetic differences are especially notable because of the structure of the cities and their spatial relationship to one another. Some areas are “total,” others “cross-hatch” and some “alter” (Miéville 46). The significance of these terms changes depending on where you are situated: an area that is “total” — that is, fully “in” or the property of one city — is “alter” in the other. These sites are visible and accessible to both Besź and Ul Qomans, but remain ambiguous no-trespassing zones depending on who owns what portion of the land.


 While the citizens of these cities and their respective authorities are predominantly invested in maintaining these borders, the policing institution “Breach” intervenes when illicit crossovers take place, in order to reinforce the borders that differentiate the official citizen from the illicit Other. Thinking back to his first childhood encounter with Breach, protagonist Inspector Borlú recalls the sudden appearance of Breach agents at the scene of a cross-over car accident. The agents emerged like figures “that seemed to coalesce from spaces between smoke from the accident, moving too fast to be clearly seen [...] organizing, cauterizing, restoring” (Miéville 66). In the novel, Breach symbolizes the function of dominant ideology — indeed, the very embodiment of ideological power — insofar as Breach agents organize and striate space, constructing individuals in the same motion that they delineate their environment and modes of being in that environment. Deviations from the cities’ bifurcation, or border-crossings, threaten the striations, organization and identities of both cities. The punishment for breaching is never directly communicated, though Borlú notes that in cases of accidental transgressions, Breach are “normally merciful” (Miéville 54), while others simply disappear (Miéville 61). As ideological agents, Breach are both “there” and “not-there” (Miéville 66); Breach is positioned in the background, “[becoming] the texture against which personal consequences are mapped” (Easterbrook 63). It is only when order is threatened that Breach becomes visible; otherwise, the acting-out of ideology on the spatial environment functions invisibly or at least under the radar of everyday life.


The metonymic relationship between Breach and dominant ideological discourses extends into the private realm. This is to say that individuals can be punished (i.e., removed) for simply choosing to see into the “alter” city — with see understood in its simplest and most colloquial sense. Breach is both an external agent acting on citizens but is equally a source of internalized discipline. Besź and Ul Qoman citizens are indoctrinated to “un-see” those individuals, buildings, vehicles and other objects, and inhabitants of the area that do not, in fact, occupy their city, despite occupying the same topographical or geographical space (Miéville 46). As a result, the landscapes and citizens of both appear to one another like ghosts that are decidedly absent on a conscious level, but nonetheless still annoyingly present like white noise in the background. This process of un-seeing is a complicated ritual that involves not only turning away from Otherness, but also, feigning ignorance of sounds or smells that belong to the “alter” city. Even traffic incidents between vehicles of opposing cities must be “un-seen,” and as Borlú notes to an Ul Qoman colleague, “you’ve got to learn to un-see all the other cars, the ones abroad, but un-see them fast enough to get out of their way” (Miéville 194). Although the citizens of both cities are disciplined to follow the rituals of un-seeing, the attempts are, predictably, never fully successful. As a result, Besź and Ul Qoman individuals are caught in a perpetual double-bind — negotiating proper and improper responses to material experiences and encounters. This process of negotiation makes visible the tensions of citizenship in a more general way. Becoming a proper citizen requires the internalization of discipline imposed as a result of ideological norms that are rendered material through constant repetition, and which require the assumption of a selective blindness and/or hostility towards Otherness. Individuals in both cities experience and consistently reinforce the barriers that construct the definition of good citizens, but the un-seeing good citizen always exists in tension with the self who must, inevitably, see.  Indeed, The City & The City constantly draws attention to the difficulty of this double movement, reinforcing the impossibility of this very process. As the previous quote illustrates, citizens “learn” to see and un-see in quick succession – “fast enough” to get out of the way.


The cities — Besźel and Ul Qoma — and their respective citizens and streets are differentiated by particular cultural signifiers and “codes” (Miéville 37). For example, Borlú describes the process that tourists must undergo in order to enter either one of the cities. The process involves

Mandatory training and [a] not un-stringent entrance exam [with] both theoretical and practical-role-play elements. [...] They would [have to] know key signifiers of architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner, outlaw colours and gestures [...] and, depending on their Besź teacher, the supposed distinctions in national physiognomies — distinguishing Besźel and Ul Qoma, and their citizens. (Miéville 76)

Colour, in particular, is used throughout the novel to differentiate between the two: a colour called “Besźel blue” is illegal in Ul Qoma, and Miéville frequently notes the “grey glare” of the Besź lamps “effaced by [the] foreign orange light” of Ul Qoma (21). Throughout, Besźel is notably grey, whereas Ul Qoma is strikingly gold and neon. The contrast between the colours symbolizes their geographical and social differentiation. The colours reflect how the geographical delineation between Ul Qoma and Besźel is experienced by citizens in a tangible and affective way, suggesting both a psychological and a material dimension to their splitting.


Most importantly, the aesthetic difference between the two cities also reflects their socio-economic differences. Inspector Borlú frequently comments on the uneven development of the cities and the marked visual contrast this creates in particular areas; specifically between those areas that are poverty-stricken in Besźel and others that are wealthy in Ul Qoma. This socio-economic contrast is visualized through Miéville’s use of colour to describe the respective sites: Ul Qoma’s golden glare symbolizes its respective wealth in contrast to the drab, grey, poverty-stricken streets of Besźel. While walking through a Besź ghetto — a place that is simultaneously a financial district in Ul Qoma — Borlú comments that “most of those around us were in Besźel so we saw them. Poverty deshaped the already staid, drab cuts and colours that enduringly characterize Besź clothes — what has been called the city’s fashion-less fashion” (Miéville 18). In this “heavily crosshatched street,” Miéville writes that “clutch by clutch of architecture [is] broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besźel juts up semiregularly and the roofscape is almost a machicolation” (24). The “often-broken-glassed, half-capacity [...] factories and warehouses” of the Besźel waterfront are reflected in the “mirrored buildings of a foreign waterfront — an enviable finance district” (Miéville 26). These examples demonstrate how distinct ideological differences and their economic effects are physically manifested on the material substance of the city.


Cross-hatch and Alter Spaces and the Double Nature of Heterotopias

“Cross-hatch” areas are those that belong to both cities, and they also include those areas that weave together both Ul Qoman and Besź land like a tangled tapestry. As such, “cross-hatch” streets include those that are fully “in” Besźel except for one house, or one room. You can be in Besźel one minute, cross a stretch of road, and find yourself (perhaps unexpectedly) in Ul Qoma. As such, “cross-hatch” areas exemplify Michel Foucault’s description of heterotopias as those areas which “juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” This is to say that that the heterotopia brings into conflict “a whole series of places that are foreign to one another” (Foucault 25). The “cross-hatch” areas in the novel blur the disciplinary boundaries of the city and create urban instability. Negotiating the Other — either Other citizens or Other spaces — is, as you would expect, particularly difficult in these “cross-hatch” areas.


An example of difficulty occurs near the beginning of the novel. Inspector Borlú notes, while wandering home through a “cross-hatch” area, that “in Besźel it was a quiet area, but the streets were crowded with those elsewhere. I un-saw them, but it took time to pick past them all” (Miéville 25). This example illustrates how the heterotopic “cross-hatch” areas subvert and destabilize the strict boundaries of each city. Kevin Hetherington’s characterization of heterotopias as  “places of Otherness, whose Otherness is established through a relationship of difference with other sites, such that their presence either provides an unsettling of spatial and social relations or an alternative representation of spatial and social relations” accurately describes the function of “cross-hatch” areas in The City & The City (8). Heterotopias emerge as a result of a particular division of space that controls and specifies which relations are possible between citizens and places. Pedestrians of Besźel or Ul Qoma become citizens as a result of their adherence to spatial divisions and barriers, not only because their use of space is prescribed, but also because it necessarily disallows particular relationships between citizens.


In the context of The City & The City, “cross-hatch” and “alter” areas represent these spaces where Otherness gathers and is ostracized. The Others that occupy the “alter” spaces are out of bounds. This demarcation allows for the establishment and reification of national identities, but it also allows citizens of both cities to locate and avoid Otherness in general, but also, the act of crossing or even acknowledging difference. As such, heterotopias like “cross-hatch” or “alter” areas in the novel are an exception to the rule or the norm but also, simultaneously, are deviations that reinforce the power of the prevailing and dictated spatial logic. “Alter” areas, for example, serve to underpin the borders that distinguish one city’s identity from the other. The heterotopic “alter” areas function like mirrors that locate the proper citizen in their proper place, while positioning the other as Other.


Although heterotopic “alter” and “cross-hatch” areas serve as places where the Other can be located and, subsequently, rendered both literally and figuratively invisible, heterotopias are also areas that, insofar as they are illicitly registered, can be conceptualized as potential sites of resistance. Heterotopias exist as simultaneously over-coded and in excess of the coding process. They are over-coded because they are registered as Other to the norm and therefore provide an Other for the subject to define itself against; however, heterotopias are also excessive because that Otherness can never be fully reincorporated into the self-sameness of identity politics. In the novel, these liminal spaces become opportune sites for Borlú to transcend the acceptable spatial boundaries created by the respective institutions of Besźel and Ul Qoma. The existence of “cross-hatch” areas — though symptomatic of a repressive state power that curtails the agency of individuals and communities — also exposes loopholes within that system. These loopholes can be exploited by citizens of either city to articulate new types of agency and engage in oppositional socio-political activities.


Resisting Placement, Producing Spaces: Oppositional Mobility

Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia can be read productively alongside the spatial politics presented by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life where “place” signifies, for de Certeau, that which is mapped and striated; indeed, he writes that “the law of the ‘proper’ rules in the place […] it implies an indication of stability.” To think of the city as a space, alternatively, is to conceive of the city not as a geographically set map but, rather, as “composed of intersections of mobile elements” (de Certeau 117). These are the trajectories of the everyday; they symbolize the heterogeneity of life’s rhythms that cannot be re-appropriated (at least, not easily) into the prevailing (spatial) logic, and not the borders and designated pathways of the official and mapped city.


Heterotopias, therefore, are contested sites where the structure and function of places are subverted, juxtaposed and mobilized by the heterogeneous striations of everyday spatial practices. The spatial logic that characterizes “placement” — this is to say, the logic of identity, mapping and linearity — is disturbed by a utilization of space that denies such appropriations and is always incompatible with state-produced logics of space. The interaction between Besźel and Ul Qoma and the subjects within and sometimes between these states renders highly visible the interface between space and place. Both “cross-hatch” and “alter” areas are spaces of liminality that cannot be unproblematically appropriated into one “place” or the other. Within The City & The City, this phenomenon reveals itself as the bifurcation of the city into illicit spaces and official places. Heterotopias combine both depending on their use.


In fact, the delineation of official places and illicit spaces is what makes possible the emergence of the illicit or, rather, difference in general. In other words, the “maps [that] make clear to walkers where they might go” also define what is forbidden, creating the possibility of transgression in the first place (Miéville 263). It is in this sense that the “cross-hatch” areas are over-coded and yet also transcendent of their own over-coding. As such, heterotopias have a double-quality; they are not essentially oppressive or liberatory; rather, the quality of the heterotopia is determined through its use. The presence of such liminal spaces opens up the possibility of engaging with space differently in ways that resist state-sanctioned barriers.


The “official” status of place(s) and the illicit nature of “space” are rendered explicit by a map of the two cities discovered at one of the Unificationist posts. The Unificationists, predictably, believe that the two cities should be combined into one and are a revolutionary, militant subculture group. At the Unifactionist’s headquarters, Borlú finds a map that has been altered in order to avoid prosecution. This map includes “lines and shades of division” that distinguish “total, alter, and crosshatched” areas in Besźel and Ul Qoma; however, these boundaries are, according to Borlú, “ostentatiously subtle, distinctions of greyscale” (Miéville 46). That is, the Unificationists minimize the visibility of the official borders so as to open up new illicit trajectories for political action. The process of mapping, similar to the case of the production of heterotopias, reifies spatial distinctions that divide and subsequently define “illicit” and “permissible” behaviours, movements and, therefore, citizens. The Unificationist map illustrates the tension between the official mapping of space and the manner in which the objectivity of mapping produces, in its very creation, the illicit Other.


As the novel progresses, Borlú becomes increasingly prone to testing and provoking the boundaries that divide the cities. His acts inscribe new trajectories onto and into the space. These tests challenge the dominance, stability, “identity” of place and destabilize the measured rhythms of the city. One scene is particularly striking:

I turned back to that night city, and this time I looked and saw its neighbour. Illicit, but I did. Who hasn’t done that at times? [...] I turned to the railway lines a few metres by my window and waited until, as I knew it would eventually, a late train came and looked into its rapidly passing, illuminated windows, and into the eyes of the passengers, a very few of whom even saw me back and were startled [...] I always wanted to live where I could watch foreign trains. (Miéville 40)

Borlú, a Besź citizen, is increasingly drawn to the Otherness that radiates from the forbidden spaces of Ul Qoma. His refusal to un-see the foreign trains and his choice to live in a space that allows him to observe the everyday activities of Ul Qoma (while living in Besźel) reflects Borlú’s intentional intermingling of place and space. This also reveals the extent to which the delineation of official places and illicit spaces is unsustainable for the occupants of both cities in general, as everyday activities — like riding a train — frequently result in encounters between Others that should be un-seen, but can never fully and finally be removed from one’s line of vision. As such, the imaginary line demarcating Besźel and Ul Qoma, the official and the illicit, is frequently blurred. Whereas the “cross-hatch” and “alter” areas appear more or less self-contained and identifiable at the beginning of the novel, they become increasingly diffuse; the membrane between cities becomes increasingly porous. While this transition might suggest that the cities were, in fact, more stringently distinguished at the beginning of the novel, what I would argue, alternatively, is that this transition demonstrates that such delineations were never complete or possible in the first place. It is not the ideological barriers between the cities that change, per se, but rather, Borlú’s increasing awareness that these barriers are fragile and untenable. The conventional noir narrative of the novel unravels in tandem with the dismantling of Borlú’s – and, arguably, the readers’ – acceptance that the spatial-ideological status quo of the cities is sustainable.


Rhythmanalysis: Examining the Rhythms of Space and Place

The opposition between “space” and “place” and its relation to the production of official places and illicit spaces is further elaborated in LeFebvre’s analysis of spatial practices in Rhythmanalysis. LeFebvre’s conceptualization of rhythms runs parallel to and complements de Certeau’s analysis of place and space. The same opposition or tension that occurs between place and space exists between eurythmic and arrythmic rhythms as they are described by LeFebvre. What de Certeau calls “places,” LeFebvre defines as mappable locations that appropriate space to conform to a “rhythmic law, [a] calculated and expected obligation, a project” (Rhythmanalysis 8). A “place” is dictated by mechanized rhythms; these rhythms can be mapped according to a law or ideology which determines allowable frequencies of movement by actors in that lived reality. Thus, the measured rhythms — “official” mappable places and their boundaries, like national borders — (re)produce the city as a “coherent object” with a fixed “identity” (LeFebvre Rhythmanalysis 6-7). The measured rhythm of the city renders space quantifiable in order to contain and control it; this has the additional consequence of also limiting the movements and trajectories of the individuals who occupy that space. Individuals thus become obligated to engage with space in a distinctive manner that aligns with the state’s production of space as a “project,” that is to say, an objective map enforcing a particular type of spatialized discipline.


LeFebvre refers to this kind of rhythmic equivalence as eurythmic, i.e., “healthy” rhythm. Eurythmia, according to LeFebvre, involves the union of “rhythms [...] with one another in the state of health, in normal (which is to say normed) everydayness” (Rhythmanalysis 16). In this normatively “healthy” state, both space and bodies are coerced into conforming to maps that reflect ideological delineations. The official city maps are abstract representations of ideological norms imposed onto the space itself, and which therefore delimit how individuals occupy and create that space. In this sense, the official mapped delineations between Ul Qoma and Besźel are nevertheless reinforced and rendered material by the social activities of individuals who conform to those barriers. The spaces remain distinct and regulated insofar as the citizens of those spaces choose to conform to the eurythmic processes dictated by the official maps. At the beginning of the novel, Borlú is still “playing nice” and operating within the simulacra of the mapped spaces. At this point, Borlú’s movement is eurythmic and abstract — that is, he stays within the boundaries constructed for him by the cities and their authorities. In this manner, Borlú recreates and renders “real” the official separation of Ul Qoman and Besź space. The first section of the novel is named after and takes place in Borlú’s home city, Besźel, and it is perhaps Borlú’s familiarity with and respect for his homeland that compels him to remain obedient to the authorities and mindful of borders.


The best example of Borlú’s adherence to the spatial code determined by a eurythmic perspective occurs in the first pages of the novel, immediately prior to his initial perusal of the crime scene:

Between the brick buildings [...] trash moved in the wind. It might be anywhere. An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling way. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking. With a hard start, I realised that she was not in Besźel at all, and that I should not have seen her. Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same with the same speed. (Miéville 12)

This encounter speaks to the disciplinary function of the mapped place and the oppressive effect of such delineations — not only on the urban landscape but equally on the citizens of the space and their capacity to be in motion. As this passage demonstrates, the adherence to “healthy” rhythms requires a disavowal not of the “other spaces” but, more significantly, a disavowal of those who are Othered in the process of making and reinforcing real and ideological boundaries. The fact that Borlú must turn away from this elderly woman and deny their encounter reveals the socio-political effects of geographical delineations, and the extent to which geographical boundaries equally articulate ideological boundaries. These simultaneously material and social boundaries reinforce the necessity of rejecting those Others who are made illicit by virtue of their spatial and cultural positionality. That Borlú un-sees and feigns ignorance of this confrontation demonstrates the extent to which he is willing to maintain the “healthy” rhythms of the official cities by adhering to their boundaries. Although Borlú’s accordance with the official boundaries reflects a desire to refrain from openly defying these rules, his adherence to these regulations is a strategic choice born of fear rather than respect for those rules. The fact that Borlú, among others, is constantly drawn to the Other and to acts of illicit un-seeing, reveals that the occupants of both cities are conscious of alternative trajectories but are also aware that those opportunities for connection are always already foreclosed by disciplinary barriers imposed by state-sanctioned forces and the associated legal consequences. Borlú, and presumably the other citizens of both cities, exist in a state of tension between their roles as self-regulating, “good” citizens, and their lived realities which offer, in everyday acts and encounters, the possibility to engage with space in different — and sometimes dangerous — ways.


The daily trajectories of Besź and Ul Qoman individuals, therefore, are usually dictated by external state controls that ensure individuals conform to certain spatial rhythms at the expense of others. Simultaneously, however, there are always opportunities to subvert spatial discipline and occupy different rhythms. To perceive rhythm solely as a series of “impersonal laws” governing space is to ignore rhythms that circumvent and alter the way(s) that the city is used (Rhythmanalysis 6). This is to say that although the organization of the city imposes a system onto its geography and people, the city also subverts its own codes by virtue of their very repetition. LeFebvre writes that there is

No rhythm without repetition in time and in space, without reprises, without returns, in short, without measure. But there is no identical absolute repetition, indefinitely. Whence the relation between repetition and difference. When it concerns the everyday [...] there is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive difference. (Rhythmanalysis 6)

In other words, due to the relationship between repetition and difference, the mapping of place onto space results in the (re)production of spaces that deny appropriation. The repetition of our movements in and around the city produces subtle variations that deny official trajectories. LeFebvre’s formula of rhythmed movement in space, therefore, suggests that the apparent self-contained and clear-cut identity of place (i.e. the logic of identity) is a structural or representational illusion. Despite itself, repetition produces variation. The result is a conflict between “rhythmic frequencies” that, on the one hand, are linear and tied to temporality, history and identity, and on the other, reflect that which is cyclical, embodied: what he calls “the carnal, the lived, the social” (Rhythmanalysis 9). The rhythm involved in walking through the city, though it may start by conforming to the boundaries of place, eventually produces new frequencies and subtle variations that alter and re-appropriate the spatial environment.


The re-emergence of difference changes the nature of the passage as much as its tempo: linear eurythmic patterns are focused on the destination, on the points that signify “places” on a map, whereas arrhythmic trajectories are located at the interval or the passage between points. This is, once again, to reiterate the opposition between space and place: the individuals that embody arrhythmic movements occupy the spatial interval between points, but the agents of the state, those with a vested interest in the eurythmic, focus on the destination, the points rather than the intervals of the spatial equation. In order to enter into the “real” of the spatial, the eurhythmic must be disrupted. The “real” becomes accessible when the measured repetition of time and space skips out of its own unity; it produces difference insofar as repetition is never identical. This disruption of eurythmia (that is, the disruption of “healthy,” normed rhythm) results in arrhythmia, or, to quote LeFebvre, irregular or “pathological” rhythm (Rythmanalysis 16). In other words, arrhythmia signifies disorder, and diversion from the set pattern.


Within the novel, the crime itself — the murder and its increasingly tangled implications and motives — functions as the original incursion of arrhythmia into the fabric of the cities. The murder victim, Mahalia Geary, is an American doctoral student studying an Ul Qoman archaeological dig. Borlú uncovers that Mahalia was passionate about Orciny, the mythical third city that, in theory, exists between the Besźel and Ul Qoma, and that she had become a messenger for political groups committed to undermining the officially-sanctioned separation of the cities (Miéville 90). The crime, insofar as it takes place between the boundaries of both cities and involves both sides, splits the membrane between Besźel and Ul Qoma, much like the face of the victim is split. Mahalia’s facial wound symbolizes the inherent violence of the cities’ ideological and material boundaries. This system cannot accommodate the Otherness of Mahalia as a foreigner who is not sufficiently respectful of those barriers. Her facial wound — a “jagged, ugly [...] deep torn hole” (Miéville 7) — represents the threat posed by those who refuse to follow the “correct” rhythms dictated by the governments of the respective cities. Notably, Mahalia’s refusal to adhere to the official borders of the cities is not manifested through an act of breaching; in fact, her friend Yolanda notes that Mahalia “never breached, not even in one of those ways that you can’t tell[. …] She wouldn’t give Breach a chance to take her” (Miéville 209). Rather, Mahalia is perceived as a threat due to her willingness to challenge the very ideological and historical foundations that caused the cities to split in the first place. Her interest in Orciny, and her eventual involvement with political groups attempting to disrupt the official boundaries between Besźel and Ul Qoma, marks her as ideologically deviant in the framework of the cities. The threat of Mahalia’s Otherness cannot be appropriated back into the system, and as such, necessitates an act of physical violence that reflects the ideological violence inherent in the act of defining proper citizens in opposition to illicit Others.


Through his involvement in the investigation, Borlú perpetuates and expands the schism produced by the initial crime. The murder of Mahalia is an intense divergence from the ideological system of Besźel and Ul Qoma, and as such can be characterized as arrhythmic or pathological. During the murder, her body is killed in one city but then transported and dumped into the other city, transgressing ideological divisions and introducing a chaos that cannot be reincorporated into either city. Borlú’s involvement in this case, as the chief detective in charge of solving this murder, necessarily positions him in line with this pathological divergence, an arrhythmic disruption that manifests itself through Borlú as the novel progresses. While at the beginning of the novel, Borlú is conscientious and respectful of boundaries, he becomes increasingly prone to breaching. The moment that Borlú does breach is, arguably, the climax of the novel. Borlú pursues a criminal in Besźel, while he himself is officially in Ul Qoma. Due to this separation, Borlú remarks that “this was not, could not be, a chase. It was only two accelerations. He ran, he in his city, me close behind him, full of rage, in mine” (Miéville 237). The metaphor of the “two accelerations” reiterates the tension between arrhythmic and eurythmic trajectories. Both men — in pace with one another — function as arrhythmic frequencies in their respective cities, frequencies that disrupt the barrier separating Besźel from Ul Qoma.


When Borlú will either lose the suspect or breach, he chooses to breach, shooting the man in Besźel from his own position in Ul Qoma. As a result of this transgression, Breach authorities emerge and Borlú is put on trial. This trial, however, is more or less an initiation. Unlike the majority of individuals who are disciplined for breaching, Borlú’s authority as an investigator as well as the atypical circumstances of his breach result in him being absorbed into the system, becoming an extra-legal authority with permission to move through and between the two cities. When Borlú first realizes that it is no longer necessary for him to adhere to the borders between cities, he writes that “[my] sight seemed to un-tether as with a lurching Hitchcock shot, some trickery of dolly and depth of field, so the street lengthened and its focus changed. Everything I had been unseeing now jostled into sudden close-up” (Miéville 254). The use of filmic language reflects how this transition involves the adoption of a new perspective, a new lens through which to observe the maps of the two cities which are now seen as one city. The “un-tether[ing]” of Borlú’s line of vision reflects this reorientation, as both his perspective and bodily movements become disconnected from previous patterns of seeing and moving, and must now take up a new orientation towards space that is as much material as it is ideological. Borlú’s arrhythmic movements and his initiation into Breach enable (or, rather, compel) him to resituate himself in relation to the city. Whereas Borlú was previously indoctrinated to see the spatial environment — that is, the images of the cities — as striated and sectioned places, he must now learn to perceive and act differently in relation to the official mappings. Paradoxically, Borlú’s initiation into Breach requires not only that he begins to see both cities, but that he becomes even more conscientious of their separation in order to police those boundaries. He is no longer merely an occupant of one city who must un-see the illicit Other city; he must now learn how to (1) see both cities and their boundaries, (2) learn how to police those barriers for others while, (3) learning how to simultaneously navigate between and indeed treat the two cities as one to the extent that Breach grants him the authority to do so. Borlú learns to move differently, but his opportunity to employ new rhythmic trajectories is only possible through his role as a Breach agent with the responsibility to police others. In this manner, Borlú’s extra-legal navigation of the city borders enables him to open up a transitional space that threatens the codified mapping of borders; however, this is paradoxical because Borlú also becomes an enforcer of that system.


Borlú’s activities can be explained through the lens of Hetherington’s theory of a space of “deferral” that “reveals the process of social ordering to be just that, a process rather than a thing” (ix). By employing differential rhythms that require a new orientation to and occupation of geographical and cultural space, Borlú makes visible the processes of “social and spatial ordering” that overdetermine the discursive and material boundaries of citizenship (Hetherington ix). It is in this process of making visible — i.e., opening up a productive heterotopia of deferral through the employment of differential rhythms of movement — that Borlú demonstrates the possibility of an alternative order.


As I previously noted, however, this is not to say that Borlú escapes from the striations of place. It is only by becoming further entrenched in the system — being granted immunity after attaining a certain level of knowledge — that he gains the ability to out-manoeuvre the disciplinary systems that continue to structure both cities. While Borlú is never entirely exterior to that structure of discipline, he does enter a unique position wherein he becomes capable of bending the rules of the system. de Certeau maintains that we cannot act outside of “discourse”; in fact, “invention is not unlimited, and, like improvisations on the piano, [invention] presupposes the knowledge and application of codes” (21). This is to say that it is not the codes that limit our potential for action; rather, the codes are the conditions under which we can experiment. It is in this way that Borlú manages to “make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to [his] own interests and their own rules” (de Certeau xiv). As such, Borlú’s simultaneous engagement with the two cities as he chases the criminal — that is, as he threads in and out of the fabric of the cities — dismantles the geographical map in favour of rhizomatic trajectories that split and deform the invisible interfaces that represent and re-entrench dominant ideological forms.


Borlú’s invalidation of the respective city limits is temporary; it is like a stray stitch gone awry in an otherwise coherent pattern. This is to say that Borlú’s transgression of the codes that differentiate the “place” of Besźel from the “place” of Ul Qoma is quickly and efficiently co-opted to reinforce the all-consuming authorial powers of Breach. In splitting the membrane between the two cities, Borlú becomes Breach, that which is subject to — and that which reinforces — an authorial agent that is all the more powerful because of its invisibility. In other words, Borlú’s subversion of the official barriers is always re-appropriated. This demonstrates the paradoxical double-bind inherent in heterotopias discussed earlier: they produce opportunities for arrhythmic movement but also confine that movement, re-appropriating it back into the fabric of the pre-existing hegemonic milieu; that is, the specific arrangement of a given eurythmia that asserts itself as intransient and without origin.



For Foucault, heterotopic spaces are those “real” sites that stand in opposition to the “fundamentally unreal spaces” of utopias (24). As such, utopias are idealized images that are necessarily problematized by lived reality (Foucault 24). Essentially, the utopia is an impossible ideal insofar as it is never total; transgressions and subversions of the dominant order are always partial, and always only realized as modes. What are the implications of this for political action? Are we stuck, then, incapable of reappropriating space to new ends? To quote Deleuze and Guattari, you cannot “wildly destratify”; rather, you must “retain a minimum of strata, a minimum of forms and functions [...] from which to extract materials, affects, and assemblages” (270). This is to say that place and space are inextricable. These are not two poles in binary relation but rather two modes that remain partial in relation to one another. In other words, the opposition of space and place, eurythmia and arrhythmia is never resolved dialectically to produce a new “third” type of rhythm, a synthesis of both; rather, the frequencies engage and remain in opposition, attempting, as LeFebvre has described, to “grasp a moving but determinate complexity (determinate not entailing determinism)” (Rhythmanalysis 12). This is significant because it suggests there is an inherent potentiality in all movement to redefine or subvert external barriers that seek to coerce it into particular channels. Yes, we may end up back on the striated plane of being; however, this plane will inevitably skip, crumple, diversify or otherwise glitch at some point or another. These are opportunities to move differently; to take advantage of the irregularities in the pattern and follow them.


Like the cities and nations of present-day reality, the cities in Miéville’s The City & The City are constructed in such a way as to be self-contained images, representations of distinct and mutually-exclusive systems. The relative power of each, but also the significance of the features that distinguish one from the other, are sustained by the strength of their respective self-representations. Space is coded in such a way as to discipline the movements of the individual found within its contours, thus exerting ideological control via the construction of a particular kind of spatiality. Within the novel, Borlú manages to subvert the codes of the cities so as to disrupt state-sanctioned spatial barriers. Borlú’s subversion occurs throughout the novel as he continuously pushes the boundaries of what are deemed acceptable interactions between citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Borlú’s ongoing subversion of these ideological codes culminates in his physical breach during the chase scene. This physical breach is significant insofar as it materializes the ideological tension that exists from the beginning of the novel: the difficulty inherent in becoming a proper citizen, delineated from the illicit Other and appropriately situated in space. Although Borlú manages to subvert the disciplinary codes of place in order to tactically engage in novel forms of spatial practice, his breach and ensuing ability to subvert official borders is based on his incorporation within the state-supported organization Breach, exposing the extent to which Borlú’s ability to bend the rules is dependent on a certain type of privilege not afforded to the everyday citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma.


In this sense, Borlú’s transgression of the official barriers between both cities can be characterized as a pendulum-like movement between striated places defined by their eurythmic quality, and heterogeneous and mobile spaces constantly redefined through arrhythmic practices. As such, despite the contingent and temporary nature of Borlú’s spatial transgressions, his transversal of official spatial codes and assumption of alternative trajectories expose the possibility of new forms of social and political activity.  Regulated places, objectified images on maps, are always capable of being challenged and transformed into heterogeneous spaces produced through differential spatial practices. Rather than merely consuming and occupying space in ways determined in advance by the state (or other disciplinary powers), individuals must employ space in new ways, creating their own rhizomatic pathways through everyday acts. For de Certeau, this requires, first, becoming aware of the ways space is organized in order to “make the body tell the code” and, second, to make “innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to our own interests and our own rules” (148, xiv). It is therefore valuable to bend and subvert these formations in new and unique ways and to view Miéville’s The City & The City not in the ways it is meant to be seen (or unseen), but in the ways it can be seen.


Works Cited


de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley & L.A.: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

Easterbrook, Neil. “State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany.” Political Science Fiction. Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 43-75. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16.1 (1986): 22-27. Web.

Hetherington, Kevin. The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Hourigan, Daniel. “Breach! The Law’s Jouissance in Miéville’s The City & The City.” Law, Culture and the Humanities 9.1 (2011): 156-168. Web.

LeFebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London & New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.

---. The Production of Space. 1991. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000. Print.

Miéville, China. The City & The City. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009. Print. 




Kristen Shaw is a PhD student in the English and Cultural Studies program at McMaster University. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on feminist and post-Marxist readings of space, geography and politics in contemporary speculative fiction. Kristen has recently presented on  utopia, mobility, and spatial practices in the works of Bruce Sterling and Karl Schroeder and she has a chapter forthcoming in the volume The Women of James Bond edited by Lisa Funnell.



1. Besź and Ul Qoman are the adjective forms of the city names Besźel and Ul Qoma, respectively.



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