What makes the ideological constructions in the City and the City so effective? The legal apparatus bring into focus the strange mental conceptions that work to sterilise any of the cultural or political tensions that would normally be present in such a place. The cities are part mental construct, a visual and ideological architecture (upheld through the various legal and ethical elements) that the citizens are forced to take up, and where bizarre spatial compressions and distortions form. What these mental conceptions circumvent is a direct confrontation between the two opposing cities. These conceptions escape (or at least, keep at bay) fundemental antagonisms, by an extreme process of mediation and fantasy-projection.
The City and The City is a fantasy novel precisely about the very powers of fantasy and belief. These conceptions create surreal simulacrums of which we should also be familiar with today. The city (as a general place of urban development and dense human interaction) is not simply the cold impartial product of linear human activity –of indifferent and crude materiality which encircles its citizens – but is a social dialectic in which we both project and formulate our consciousness, a place of extensive ideological apparatuses which exercise their (often oppressive) powers of pre-given beliefs and desires upon political subjects, in order to reproduce a particular kind of city. To put it alternatively, the city is part canvas in which we paint our inner and subjective ideas upon – a map, prone to the mistakes and eccentricities of the cartographer – whilst simultaneously being a given space of previous political and subjective inscriptions.
With social antagonisms in cold storage, The City and The City appears ahistorically. Any sense of historical place, origin or trajectory within Beszel seems lost, whilst Ul Qoma exhibits a kind of simulated ancestry through archaeological digs (where, all within the same site, seemingly genuine period artefacts are mixed amongst a grandmother’s “bric-a-brac”). This artificial history displaces any sense of (not just fixed, but referential too) meaning, whilst politics withers away to become a simple process of upholding juridical duties and maintaining the status quo (post-politics). Stripped of their historical purpose, and in a kind of suspended animation, the two cities are left isolated and merely operational.
Despite the two city’s rigid boundaries, new alternative and potential spatial configurations do open up later in the book. The mysterious, panoptic force of ‘Breach’, who operate above both the law and the city’s inscribed spatial limits (‘private property – do not enter’!), crisscross back and forth, invisible to the citizens. Breach operates like a sort of secret police, only they also play a key role in both cities’ spatial construction. They make sure both territories remain separated, with those who attempt to transgress the limits being severely punished. They are an important physical state apparatus, who like the police, play an extended hand to the law’s almighty authority. Yet despite being imperceptible, they are also a powerful socio-symbolic legal structure. A big Other, which is always presumed to be watching, they act as an objective mediator, against which the citizen’s subconsciously interact with and factor in (the threat of being caught or implicated by the the Breach entity is a barrier as rigid and divorcing as any material wall). The entire spatial structure, overlaps with the mental, and The City and The City functions because of the presence of Breach.
A potential third space opens up between the restrictive spaces of Beszel and Ul Qoma. The elusive entity which intersects the two cities is ‘Orciny’ – a hidden territory that lies between the two spaces. This third space remains a utopian potentiality, an enclave operating contingently between the two larger, more distinct physical spaces, as well as between their overarching legal and ideological relations.
What do the cities of Mieville’s novel represent? Not simply another far-off dystopia or reductive totalitarianism which we can easily dismiss. Instead this is a believable work with a refined and modern expression – the City and the City is an allegory of the complex political conjuncture in which we find ourselves today. Beszel and Ul Quoma share a common history (presumably, they were once a single state), yet these historical elements were abandoned in favour of a radical re-territorialisation where multiplying, local and more particular narratives would work to prolong the functioning of a dried up system that should really implode. The men and women of these cities are subjected to the same authoritative regime, only now in new and dispersed forms. In Mieville’s world social antagonisms are circumvented at any cost – geographically, politically, historically and culturally. And so I believe Mieville’s twin cities are a critique of a radically conserving post-ideological capitalist system – where problems aren’t solved, but passed around, between different geographical spaces and institutions, like hot parcels destined to explode. The totality of an elite logic and deeply dividing law and order still remains beneath the postmodern gloss of the re-imagined world – only now it has a greater plasticity – authority is neatly bundled and enveloped into wide numbers of imperceptible spaces, and pockets of power are concentrated in the appendage-like apparatuses that nevertheless remain blindly functioning and all-encompassing. As effectively as any totalitarianism – these structures encase the mind and keep its subjects in check.