When considering the historical significance of The City and The City it is first necessary to investigate when the events in the novel are set and when the author wrote the novel.
While Miéville does not provide an exact date for the setting of his narrative it is possible through references to modern day literature and culture – such as Borlú’s reference to how “Harry Potter and the Power Rangers are more popular now,” (Miéville, 62) – political tensions and technology to place the novel in the contemporary time period. The novel was published in 2009 in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis or Great Recession of 2007-2008 and it is possible to read a critique of capitalism in the presentation of the two cities. Both cities represent different stages of capitalism. Besźel depicts a depression, a period of time with little international investment and falling confidence whereas Ul Qoma is a Golden Age with a thriving economy. The line “As the river industry of Besźel had slowed, Ul Qoma’s business picked up,” (Miéville, 54) perhaps summarises Miéville’s criticism of Capitalism in this novel as it suggests that Capitalist cities, states and society exist primarily in the two forms of boom and bust and that there is little stable middle ground between the two extremes. Other influences and threads from the 2007-9 year also subtly appear in the text adding a socio-political undertone. In the United Kingdom the policy of immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, has in the last decade been a continually debated and has led to a rise in racial and religious tensions. This movement west of people is also seen within Miéville’s cities as Borlú notes the increased number of immigrants - like Hamd Hamzinic - particularly from Turkey and surrounding countries. Miéville’s does not propose any social criticism against this immigration or the new racial demography of the population but offers arguments against racist beliefs. In the explanation given of the racist term “Ébru,” (Miéville, 17) it is shown that it was an antiqued “Besź word for ‘Jew’” now being used to include the new Muslim population and is often mis-used to describe people whose family stretches back two hundred years in their inhabitation of Besźel. Racism and racial tension is a factor that even now in 2014, five years since the publication of the book, readers can observe in society.
Returning to the setting of the novel one particular incident anchors it to the present: Borlú’s attendance at a seminar included representatives from West and East Berlin. The amusement, derision and outrage Borlú and his Ul Qoman counterpart find in the idea of Besźel and Ul Qoma being referred to as a “Split [Cities]” (Miéville, 90) isolate the two cities from the other examples lectured on including Jerusalem and Berlin. The attitude that Borlú’s superior felt “an insult to Besźel,” (Miéville, 91) is immediately understandable given the fact that although spatially overlapping Besźel and Ul Qoma are two distinctly different cities. It is the spatial mapping that causes the confusion and thus international reduction of the two cities into the single. Even if presented with a convincing argument that the two cities are in fact one it would be difficult to find similarities with places such as Berlin. Following the Second World War Germany was split between the two economic and political powers of the USSR and Westernised powers led by the US and the capital city Berlin was accordingly split. The Berlin Wall was a method of preventing movement from one ‘part’ of the city to another; in The City and The City however the force that maintains the boarders between the two cities is reactive as shown in the full scale Breach at the end of the novel. Having this reactive barrier has created a fear and suspicion of Breach that ironically works as a preventive barrier as people police their own actions and views to avoid breaching.
The City and the City and the dialectic of history
“For Hegel […] each category, in being what it is, proved at the same time to be, and so to be one with, its negation. Indeed, right at the start of his logic Hegel claims that pure being and pure nothing vanish into each other of their own accord; each is thus “in its own self the opposite of itself.” This process of becoming, or proving to be, one’s own opposite, simply by being what one is, is what Hegel understands by dialectic,” (Houlgate, 8).
The Hegelian Dialectic is a model of discourse based on a structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The thesis (the proposed argument) is responded to with an antithesis (a negative reactionary argument) which then results in synthesis, wherein the arguments are reconciled and a new thesis is formed; the dialectic is thus kept in constant motion. This idea was later developed by Karl Marx, who reimagined the dialectic in accordance with production and economic activity under the name of 'dialectical materialism.'
This concept can be applied to a reading of history. The creation of a ‘type’ of society, such as feudal or capitalist, is the thesis. Once the society has fulfilled its potentialities, it will begin to negate itself and dissolve – this occurs when changes in the means of production begin to negatively impact the people, who will react accordingly and cause revolution. This in turn allows a new society to emerge in the place of the old one. In this model of historical development the ‘absolute’ is the point in which history ceases to exist, thus preventing any further societal progression. There are two arguments pertaining to this notion of the historical absolute. The first, the right-wing argument, is that history will have an endpoint, though some believe that this endpoint will be the replacement of capitalism by communism while some believe that the absolute of history has already been achieved with capitalist Western democracy. The second position, as pioneered by Theodore Adorno, is that the historical dialectic will continue indefinitely and that society will never cease in its progression; constant negation must prevent the end of history.
An externalised version of this historical dialectic might be read into the central premise of The City and the City. Both Besźel and Ul Qoma can be interpreted as opposing points in the dialectic. In this reading, Ul Qoma is the thesis of a capitalist society and profits accordingly. In contrast, Besźel is the antithesis: it represents the failings of capitalism and the point where the thesis negates itself. This reading can be supported by Borlú’s comparison between the two cities’ respective economic states and animals in Chapter Eight, in which he describes how, “Canada cosied up to what they called the New Wolf economy. We were a street mongrel, maybe, or a scrawny milkrat,” (Miéville, 111). The two cities, then, can be read as being in a state between thesis and antithesis, on the verge of total economic collapse.
If the two cities represent the two dialectical points in this way, then Breach – the city in between the other two which maintains order by preventing crossover – might be considered the absolute, the moment in which history ceases to be. Breach itself is described is grey and static, without any motion or sense of progression, and of it Borlú comments, “The Breach was nothing. It is nothing,” (Miéville, 297), insinuating that it is completely without time. The role of Breach in the novel is to maintain the boundaries between Ul Qoma and Besźel, and in this allegorical reading its role could be interpreted as the threat of the absolute in continuing the dialectical formation of history, and without Breach the dialectic would cease. At the end of the novel Borlú says, “We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among many things the question of where it is that we live. On this issue I am a liberal,” (Miéville, 373) and from this it seems that his position on the historical dialectic is a left-wing belief, as outlined by Adorno, that the development of society is in constant negation. His role is to “maintain the skin that keeps laws in place,” (Miéville, 373) by preventing the collapse of the dialectic, and thereby preventing the absolute from being reached.
Modern-day relevance of the text
Miéville’s concept of two cities inhabiting the same space holds particular relevance when related to the present Ukraine Crisis. During the recent Ukraine referendum the BBC interviewed two people from the same town to investigate what locals thought of the elections. The man they interviewed was a Russian speaking Ukrainian dressed in military garb who resolutely believes the town was a part of the Russia. There second interviewee in direct contrast was a female school mistress who spoke Ukrainian and believed that the referendum was illegal and that her town was located in Ukraine. The crisis has demonstrated the chaos that occurs when cultural, religious, political and social ‘unseeing’ is breached in a place with multiple societies. The people have divided themselves into two separate groups inhabiting the same geographical area. The distinct difference between today’s European Crisis and Miéville’s creation is that stability is reached between Besźel and Ul Qoma is due to the ability to ‘unsee the other. Unfortunately the Ukrainian Crisis is escalating into violence and possible civil war because breach has occurred. This demonstrates the relevance of The City and The City to society five years after its publication.
Houlgate, Stephen and Baur, Michael. A Companion to Hegel. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing 2011. Print.
Miéville, China. The City and the City. London: Pan Books, 2009. Print.
BBC News. “‘Russia is trying to build a new Berlin wall’ PM Yatsenyuk tells BBC News.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 13 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.