Becoming Rural-Urban Multitudes! Structures of Feeling and Allying in More-than-Urban Worlds

Multi-layered collage: A hand holds up a Polaroid of a southern European landscape with a dirt road and a worker approaching the forest on the horizon; a rural-urban multitude emerges from the Polaroid in a nocturnal cityscape illuminated by neo-light. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

The symbolic decoupling of city and countryside – for example, when we think of the two as binary opposites – obscures the fact that city and countryside are actually connected through metabolic processes and common struggles. In order to confront the polycrisis afflicting our planet, it is necessary to politicize this connection both symbolically (e.g. in the form of buried histories) and materially (e.g. in the form of labor struggles), as Manuela Zechner argues in her contribution to the “Kin City” series.


Cities are growing. I’m one of many (grand)children of peasants who grew up with one foot in the countryside and one foot in the city, where my parents had migrated to. One of many, that is – the world population living in urban areas went from 30% in 1950 to a current near 60%. I’m one of many who grew up, at least in part, in the silence and chatter of the province, close enough to fields and forests – and ended up in a city. A common story we usually tell only with embarrassment or a bit of confusion – yeah I had that rooting, some peasant ancestry, that body of a child roaming outdoors – yeah, that was me, but not anymore. Somehow.

As I grew up, my subjectivity and affectivities sedimented around the city, my movements back and forth between the city and the mountains became less frequent, I began to cross other countrysides as outsides that lay between the cities I moved between. I grew into the city with the idea that it’s the place to be, a sort of unquestionable future habitat, no doubt based on the explicit and implicit trends and norms of social and economic development. But – and I’m also one of many who share this predicament – not without a sense of unease.

A stubborn sense of ambivalence and rejection

Feeling that widespread longing to get out of the city, I’m always puzzled by how my body-mind (sentipensar) responds to being out of town, how the more-than-urban affected me, upset and overturned some convictions, ever since I left this rural ‘home.’ By then, cities had long become my center – the basis of my notion of self, politics, everyday, present, and future. I adapted to the modernist frame, we may say, underpinned by ideas of progress, productivity, wage labor, mobility – but not without a stubborn sense of ambivalence and rejection, which I seek to channel here today.

I always loathed the idea of getting a job, a profession, and imagined myself a hermit on my home mountain – I didn’t exactly become that, but I sure did evade (or fail to find) anything like a permanent job. I still go around ‘hunting and gathering,’ like so many other precarious workers of my generation do too. The cultural, creative, knowledge industries came along just in time for us to link our little rebellious peasant souls into economically thriving cities, in ways that escaped the stable life of work that many of our boomer parents sought when they moved from their parents’ farms to the city.

In this respect, I’m much unlike my parents, who still had to toil as kids, were sent to be the first to ‘study something’ and ‘become something’ in the city, and found great comfort in urban waged living eventually. My generation, somewhere between X and Y, was born into economic growth and a fair amount of mobility (depending on your class background and exact location, of course), but then also into neoliberal declassing and precarity. We, ambiguous creatures as those of any generation, experienced the countryside as more of a safe haven from the bustle and consumerism of the city, often a place of escape, memory, and nostalgia. Many of us are now thinking of moving out of the city, or have done so recently, triggered by pandemics, climate crises, precarity.

Stories we tell ourselves

Like the “Bear in a Cave” in Michael Rosen and Adrian Reynolds 2007 children’s book, I had “the sound of the city in my ears – vroomity vroom, vroomity vroom, vroomity vroomity vroom,” had ventured to find it, but then also wanted to get back out of it, to find some peace. I can however also identify with the kids who go on a playful “bear hunt” in Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” (1989). The adventurously bear ‘hunting’ kids of this earlier book cross tricky, scary, and hostile rural landscapes, to eventually find a sad looking bear and flee from it in panic, back into their home. In 1989, nature is still more of a threat than a romantic place than it was in 2007, the year in which, for the first time in history, more people on Earth lived in cities than in rural areas.

The play of inside and outside, center and periphery, is interesting when we look at the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories that shape us, and the stories we use to shape our children. I didn’t grow up with these children’s books but I was happy to take them on for my daughter, when friends passed them on as absolute classics that had been handed down to them already. There’s more to this than our love for Michael Rosen, and his penchant for bears – there’s a lot about material conditions and social desires in the stories we carry forth. Children’s books, for instance, speak to how adult authors and readers try to connect to our past, imagined or lost selves – and then in a second phase, they structure how such connection is passed down.

Raymond Williams, who coined the term “structures of feeling,” wrote a book called “The Country and the City” in 1973, where he digs into historical representations of the rural vs. the urban in English literature. A solid materialist and critical cultural analyst, he finds many mystifications and stereotypes that reflect not only experience but also class interests. From the Garden of Eden to the many forms of the pastoral style, to Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516), and so on, there’s always an interest and a positionality at play when representations of urban vs. rural are forged. As Williams writes: “Following the fortunes, through these centuries, of the dominant interests, is a story of growth and achievement, but for the majority of men it was the substitution of one form of domination for another: the mystified feudal order replaced by a mystified agrarian capitalist order.”

These are stories that take us from peasantry to servitude, in all sorts of idealized and modernist ways. Class, Williams shows, is a key factor in structuring representations and imaginaries of the countryside. This is still true today, as in the representations of the countryside promoted by agribusiness and the right wing in recent farmers protests: A landscape of white men on tractors is as devoid of migrant workers, women, and more-than-human others as romantic rural scenes and still lifes are devoid of labor. The non-representation of labor is always a telltale sign of class interest, and indeed peasant and farmer protests have historically been class and labor struggles, as Eva Gelinsky puts it.

Remembering, reclaiming, and reimagining our peasant ancestry

So what are we imagining, when we imagine a reconnection with, or a return to, the countryside? For the bourgeois imaginary, the idyllic countryside, free of labor and struggle, is still the first choice when it comes to holiday homes or ‘moving to out of the city,’ and to be sure those imaginaries are powerful enough to zap into our heads at least once in a while, in our weak moments. But for many of us desiring to reconfigure our relationship to the rural, to decenter our thinking, our politics and our lives from the urban and all the toxic modernism that goes with it, there’s a more complex picture.

Let me optimistically suggest that we are collectively learning, without forgetting class, race, gender, and species, to overcome all the shame that capitalist modernity has instilled in us for even wondering about the countryside as anything other than a quasi-dead place of resource extraction, labor exploitation, and dullness. Many of us are trying to find ways to remember, reclaim, and reimagine our peasant ancestry, with the necessary pinch of salt and hacker spirit, but with the clear understanding that we can’t leave the countryside to agri-capitalists and other extractive businesses, nor to the right wing that comes to scoop up the frustration of those left ‘behind.’

There’s an urgent labor of questioning modernist teleologies to be done, when it comes to binaries like urban-rural, past-future, tradition-progress, illiberal-liberal, genealogical-autological, resource-subjectivity, nature-human, barbarism-development, dependency-freedom, unproductive-productive, nonwork-work. Each of these conjugates the other towards more capitalist modernization and destruction. It is impressive and frightening how this teleology has been able to erase in Europe, in no less than a century or two, such ancient forms of memory, livelihood, and culture as those of the peasantry.

Peasants, counter-modernities, and rural-urban multitudes

The current crisis of capitalism, not least reflected in a crisis in agriculture and supply chains, is challenging us to recover and reclaim some of this memory, to ask how we may reproduce ourselves socially and ecologically beyond capitalist necropolitics. John Berger, another Marxist writer from England with an eye to urban-rural relations, recounts in “Pig Earth” (1979) an elderly peasant’s lucid rejection of a tractor and the debt that comes with it: “Do you know what these machines do? […] They wipe us out!”. The peasantry is a class that resists modernization, but is not therefore ‘backward’: their labors are more future oriented, flexible, variable, and open to change than most other forms of work.

As Berger puts it, “Modern history begins – at different moments in different places – with the principle of progress as both the aim and motor of history. This principle was born with the bourgeoisie as an ascendant class, and has been taken over by all modern theories of revolution. The 20th century struggle between capitalism and socialism is, at an ideological level, a fight about the content of progress.” It was anticolonial perspectives such as those of Amilcar Cabral that went beyond Western modernization paradigms, and it continues to be different decolonial, indigenous, ecofeminist, peasant and agroecological movements that push in this direction.

So how do we become rural-urban multitudes that honor our rebellious peasant ancestry, link it to our urban solidarity networks, sustain other chains of supply and care, and enable forms of belonging that transcend identification with either city or country, and all the other binary traps of modernism? How do we build counter-modern forms of subjectivity and collectivity that are willing to forgo the great technoscientific promise of progress in favor of care, justice, community, sustenance, learning, and creativity? With something more than a change in the content of progress, but also a fundamental questioning of its form?

The work of de-centering

Inevitably, this leads us to question who we can be across urban and rural divides. It challenges us to de-center and shift our gaze away from liberal promises of independence, ideas of domination over nature, fantasies of a fully automated life, and to combat the growing divide between center and periphery, our growing alienation from the social and ecological reproduction of life. De-centering quite literally, also: just as since colonial times, Global North countries produce representations of the world that center them and depict them as majority, so it has been with cities. If the Flemish-made 1569 Mercator projection makes Europe seem much larger than other continents, the same applies to urban representations and narratives that make the countryside seem anecdotal, empty, monotonous, homogeneous.

We need counter-mapping and counter-narratives not just against colonial and capitalist representations, but also against urban-centric ones (an example of this is the agribusiness narrative of industrial agriculture feeding the world). Our counter-mapping needs to proceed via our bodies, as we trace other pathways between rural and urban, center and periphery, weaving other stories about this relation. We have to make our way through the bullshit and bushes of suburbia, the fences of industrial zones and logistics centers, the desolation of monoculture fields and abandoned villages, to get into all these realities and understand how we have to transform them in order to live. We can be on the way to becoming rickety-rockety rural-urban multitudes, in a queer and joyfully wandering movement, allying with multiple kinds of farmers, villagers, workers, neighbourhoods and ancestries – and pass those stories on.

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