Think Piece

Contextualizing the Rise of Comparative Political Theory

By guest contributor Josey Tom

If the creation of subfields within a discipline indicates its development rather than its demise, then political theory is expanding and glowing in a new light. Founded in the mid-1990s, the sub-field known as Comparative Political Theory (CPT) attempts to decolonize the canon of political theory by incorporating non-Western political ideas, texts, concepts and epistemic resources hitherto ignored by political theorists. Roxanne Euben (University of Pennsylvania) who coined the term, introduced it as the project of bringing “non-Western perspectives into familiar debates about the problems of living together, thus ensuring that ‘political theory’ is about human and not merely Western dilemmas” (Euben 1997, 32). The subfield is a reminder that there are still songs to be sung by political theory beyond the West, lest the field’s only song be a dirge—a funeral song for non-Western political concepts, categories, and canons. CPT is the logical culmination of the geopolitical context of decolonization and internal debates about the aims and methods of political theory since the 1950s. These anxieties were amplified by trenchant critiques of eurocentrism by postcolonial and Subaltern Studies scholarship in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world.This piece will argue that CPT is an immanent critique in political theory that builds on the legacies of mounting internal critiques.

In an essay that attempts to chart the scope of CPT, political theorist Diego von Vacano (Texas A&M) explains the emergence of CPT in terms of both “critical disciplinary” and geopolitical factors (Vacano 2015, 467). The first contextual factor is the void opened up starting in the late 1970s by critical perspectives on modernity from Western Marxism, critical theory, the genealogical method of Michel Foucault, Edward Said’s study of orientalism, and the Subaltern Studies school, each of which challenged Western paradigms of modernization. The second factor is dissatisfaction with existing formal explanatory paradigms employed in the subfield of comparative politics. The third factor is the backdrop of end of the Cold War and contemporary globalization: The liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal 1989 article “The End of History and the Last Man” and the pessimistic prognosis of the post-Cold War era embedded in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996) provided an opening for CPT to offer alternative paradigms.

However, neglected in Vacano’s broad contextualist account are the three important critiques internalto the discipline of political theory in the twentieth century. The method-centric critique emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from the behavioralist school, which sought to explain and predict political behavior in a value-neutral manner using quantitative methods, as well as from theorists who found their field on the decline. The second critique focused on the Western-centrism of political theory, and is exemplified by the writings of John Gunnell (SUNY Albany), Jeffrey Isaac (Indiana), and Bhikhu Parekh. This critique was fragmented, as dominant understandings of disparate concepts including modernity, liberalism, and universal human rights received flak from different parts of the globe. CPT should be seen as the third major critique of political theory: It is a collective and systematic effort to challenge the Western-centrism of political theory, especially by rethinking existing categories and concepts and incorporating themes, thinkers, and cultural insights from non-Western societies.

The First Critique of Political Theory

In the 1950s and 1960s, the behavioralist school triggered intense self-reflection in political theory. Seminal essays by John Plamenatz (“The Use of Political Theory” [1960]), Isaiah Berlin (“Does Political Theory Still Exist?” [1962]), and Sheldon Wolin (“Political Theory as a Vocation” [1969]) testify to a period of soul-searching within the discipline. While these writings questioning the basis of the field were “marked by the ashes of the Cold War” (Vacano, 468), other seminal reflections on the aims of political theory were written while the Second World War and the early Cold War were still in full swing—notably Leo Strauss’s most important essays on political theory (“Persecution and the Art of Writing” [1952] and “What is Political Philosophy” [1957]).

Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls also contributed to self-reflection of political theory through their meditations on political philosophy. In his essay “The Indispensability of Political Theory” (1983), MacIntyre employs the metaphor of a map to suggest that political theory illuminates the political landscape, helping people navigate their social and political world. Political theory does not diminish in significance despite its lack of comprehensiveness, just as a grossly inaccurate map still holds some practical utility (MacIntyre 1983, 32). In his work Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001), Rawls similarly describes four roles political philosophy has in a society, namely achieving social co-operation in divisive societies, orienting members of a political community, reconciliation, and carving out feasible political arrangements (Rawls 2001, 1-4).

What motivates all these writings is the hope and promise political theory offers for political life. Political theorists and philosophers ranging from Leo Strauss to John Rawls illuminated the gap between how political theory has been conceived and how it has been practiced. The emergence of CPT should be seen in light of the inability of political theory to live up to its promise and hopes for political life—both within Western societies and globally speaking.

Political theory has not been able to fulfill its potential due to a parochialism that limits or omits non-Western political constellations and concerns. An indispensable task of political theory is to contemplate desirable and feasible political arrangements that might ensure good life for peoples. But what if the proposed political arrangements are predicated on assumptions that privilege a particular part of the globe by effacing dimensions of race and imperialism? When Huntington wrote about the clash of civilizations and Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberalism, they were, despite their biases, performing what George H. Sabine regarded as a crucial function of political theory: “an estimate of probabilities and an estimate of values” (Sabine 1939, 5). Yet when Wolin conceptualizes political theory as a tradition embodying an “inherited form,” he is thinking about a rich inheritance that is definitively Western (Wolin 1969, 1070). If political theorists are tasked with generating political knowledge, they cannot ignore the ideas and perceptions of good life in non-Western societies. The gulf between the lofty visions of political theory and its exclusive character leads us to the second critique of political theory.

The Second Critique of Political Theory

The early 1990s saw the emergence of a critique of the ethnocentrism at the heart of the discipline of political theory. The first strand of this critique targeted particular Western concepts but did not implicate political theory as a whole; it limited its critique to certain categories in light of the non-Western political realities. For instance, scholarship emerging mainly from India challenged hegemonic Western understandings of secularism and modernity, pointing out their inadequacy for understanding non-Western social and political worlds (Bhargava 1999 and Kaviraj 2002). Also under scrutiny was the ethnocentrism embedded in liberal democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s “The Cultural Particularities of Liberal Democracy” (1992) and “Decolonizing Liberalism” (1993) illustrated the provincialism of liberalism. Debates about Asian values versus Human Rights also questioned the universality of liberal democratic values. The second strand of this critique levelled loftier charges at the discipline as a whole, as exemplified in the writings of Isaac (“The Strange Silence of Political Theory” [1995]) and Parekh (“The Poverty of Indian Political Theory” [2010]). Criticizing the reluctance of American political theorists to contemplate the “events of 1989” in Eastern Europe, Isaac pointed out that political theory was a prisoner of Western European tradition, which, despite constituting a “secure reference point for our political thinking” engenders “intellectual conformity.” Parekh, meanwhile, lamented the absence in non-Western societies of a robust critique of the central categories of the West, despite an awareness of the ethnocentrism and limited explanatory power of those categories.

The Third Critique of Political Theory: Comparative Political Theory

While reflecting on the nature and task of political theory, Wolin also drew attention to its inherent limitations. Despite its sophisticated categories, political theory can offer only a limited understanding of political phenomena, as there exists a “vast range of political experience” that is inexhaustible by such categories (Wolin 2016, 21).Wolin reminds us, taking his cue from the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer, that statements and propositions in political theory are, after all, “abbreviations of reality.” He uses the metaphor of a net to represent the concepts and categories that are employed to understand political phenomena: those suitable for explaining European contexts are often ineffective and erroneous in a non-Western context.

Abstractions are indispensable in the construction of theory. But the problem with political theory these thinkers highlighted is that its “abbreviations” long remained oblivious to non-Western lifeworlds. Abstractions in mainstream political theory continue to be informed by the social and political imaginary of West while ignoring the rest. The net is seldom cast out on the non-Western world. It is in this context that CPT assumes its significance: it functions as the third critique in political theory by pointing out the inherent bias of ethnocentrism that still besets the field’s canon, concepts, and methodologies.

If CPT is to bridge the gap between the promises and practice of political theory, it also needs to examine contemporary global political issues such as right-wing populism.CPT also remains a conscript of the East-West divide: it has yet to engage the strand of decolonial scholarship that shows the non-Western pedigree of concepts often thought to be European in their origins. Laura Marks, for instance, has argued that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “univocity of being” has its source in the great Persian philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina—a history that was erased when philosophy “underwent an ethnic cleansing.” An engagement with strands of European thought that have appropriated the intellectual contributions of the non-European world has the potential to rattle some of the basic assumptions of the subfield and to provide an opportunity to rethink the reluctance of CPT scholars to accept the universality of certain political ideas.

Comparative Political Theory has finally cast its net wide. The catch might indeed be splendid. But for the catch to reach the table, the net must be stronger and the sharks kept at bay.

Josey Tom is a Research Scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. This piece is adapted from his M.Phil. dissertation, entitled “Comparative Political Theory: Contexts, Plurality and Political Action.”

Think Piece

Max Weber and Pakistan

by guest contributor Shahrukh Khan

Max Weber

Max Weber was a reluctant modernist. He understood that the major social and political trends of the modern world were irresistible, but this understanding came with a tinge of regret. In January 1919, months after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Weber delivered a lecture in Munich, on “politics as a vocation.” In this lecture, Weber defined the state in his famous formulation: “Like the political organizations that preceded it historically, the state represents a relationship in which people rule over other people. This relationship is based on the legitimate use of force (that is to say, force that is perceived as legitimate).”


Though the definition of a state in these terms has been useful, it has become, as anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah notes, “a sick joke.” “After so many successful liberations and resistance movements in many parts of the globe,” Tambiah writes, “techniques of guerrilla resistance are now systematized and exportable knowledge.” (Leveling Crowds 6). But we need not even go as far as “guerrilla resistance” to see that political violence based on, for example, religious fervor has taken hostage the notion that the state is the sole custodian of violence. Across the globe, groups and leaders with a foothold outside the confines of ‘government’ vie for legitimacy with the instruments of the Weberian state. In the postcolonial world, Pakistan is a striking example of the working through of statehood and force, particularly as its founding on the idea of religious sovereignty sits anxiously with the boundaries of state (often regarded as a secular space, in opposition to “church”) and non-state.

In this context, debates over the viability of “democracy” in the postcolonial world intersect with assumptions about the compatibility of an effective state and the presence of religious conflict. Debates about the compatibility of democracy and Islamic public morality in Pakistan often turn on the question of effective political authority, which for Weber is compromised by bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a form of human organization that rests on norms rather than persons. But Muslims, especially those who protest blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), may not entirely support this characterization of bureaucracy or governance. After all, for many observant Muslims, allegiance in daily life or religious practice is not to the bureaucratic state but rather to Allah and His Messenger.

However, a religious reader might find particular sympathy with Weber, because for Weber, the only way that the world could be saved was through a person who is holds a “gift of grace” that legitimizes his rule. Naturally, such reasoning has led critics like Wolfgang Mommsen to accuse Weber of being a fascist well-wisher. But “grace” as the possession of an authoritarian figure, and “grace” as a holy thing might well be in the eyes of the reader. Attending to the history of blasphemy in South Asia – and how the British attempted to regulate interconfessional life – illustrates this intersection.

For many Muslims, the Prophet holds ultimate sway in how they practice their religion. Muslims do not simply follow the Prophet’s advice or admonitions, but also “try to emulate how he dressed; what he ate; how he spoke to his friends and adversaries; how he slept, walked, and so on.” (Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? 75) Such actions and behaviors are collectively referred to as the Prophet’s sunnah, and though they are not divine commandments (Muslims hold the Prophet in a venerable, non-divine light), they are virtues that Muslims attempt to embody. As such, insulting the Prophet is not like an ornery attack on one’s family member or teacher. It is an attack on ways of being. The Prophet is a materially grounded figure (in religious signs, for example) that holds unique semiotic value as a matter of spirituality, lifestyle, and morality. The Prophet and his sunnah represent a connection between corporeality, religious practice, and otherworldliness. Put more bluntly, attacking the Prophet is not just hate speech, but an attack against an entire repertoire of sensibilities that govern proper, moral conduct and serve as a conduit for Muslims to please Allah. However, the semiotics of the Prophet’s corporeality are only part of the reason why blasphemy is so politically sensitive in Pakistan today.

The British were quick to realize that the conquest of India required dominating geography as well an epistemological terrain replete with a litany of social, religious, and political persuasions (Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, Bernard Cohn). Brute force and military campaigns would not work on their own. Administrators of company rule and later, of the colonial state, had to compromise somewhere, and compromise found its most robust manifestation in the allocation of legal authority.

The law is not only concerned with ending conflict but also nourishing its expansion. British colonial administration suggests a slight permutation of this argument, because it involved the allocation of power to different contingencies in Indian society – chiefs, princes, religious leaders, etc – as a way of enacting its own sovereignty. In other words, the British colonial state should be understood not through its expansion of power, but its limitations. This gave way to a system of fragmented, competing sovereignties and sources of legitimacy that presaged issues of sovereignty today.

While democratic principles of freedom would ostensibly celebrate such a “diversity” of voices, the same would not obtain for a modern legal apparatus whose legitimacy is secured by a monopoly on the means of violence. Much of nineteenth-century European academia exposited the state as omnipotent, casting it as symbolically pervasive and domineering.

Anthropology has empirically evinced this theoretical stance, against which Pakistan has often been labeled as a ‘failed state,’ as too reductive. The Pakistani state lacks the political and legal thrust, the failed state argument goes, to consolidate its sovereignty and become the sole warden of violence and physical power. And it is precisely this insufficiency that has enabled many factions to take the law into their own hands. The most prominent of these factions is the Tehreek-i-Labbaik, an Islamic political party founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Its main goal has been to organize and lead street protests in an effort to secure (very) prejudicial enforcement of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The distribution of power in colonial India, as it were, has made securing liberty for minorities and women in Pakistan in the present more difficult than the colonists might had have it.


The lack of the consolidation of power is what animated the Islamization project of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator ruling over Pakistan during the 1970s and 1980s. Zia attempted to see Weber’s understanding of the state to its completion, with a modification: he wanted to secure state legitimacy and sovereignty on religious grounds, not secular ones.

During Zia’s rule, the Parliament added Clause 295-C to the penal code, criminalizing derogatory remarks against companions of the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures. Punishment, initially limited to a prison term of up to three years, was expanded through a legal mandate issued by the Federal Shariat Court (FCC) in 1991. It ordered the government to remove the option of life imprisonment, leaving death as the only punishment for making blasphemous remarks.

Reading Weber’s state onto Pakistan’s blasphemy laws might seem like an eclectic pairing, not least of all because his “gift of grace” was hardly compatible with the precise ways in which the Pakistani state has taken up its so-called “religious” duties. Even so, the presence of “grace” in the authority of the state and the divine echoes of that virtue are one way to read the coming together of the authority of the bureaucratic state and the prohibition against blasphemy. The complex history of blasphemy law in Pakistan suggests that much of the violence enacted by non-state actors is filtered through the experiences and incentives of colonial administrators and post-colonial national elites whose goals were as diverse as the religious traditions they attempted to regulate.

Shahrukh Khan is a J.D. candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests broadly focus on philosophy, secularism, and American constitutional law. He received his BA in Social Studies, with a focus in European intellectual history and linguistics, from Harvard College.


Intellectual history

An Afternoon with Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

All photographs by Enrique Ramirez, click to enlarge + read captions

By guest contributor Enrique Ramirez

There was a moment upon entering Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, currently at MoMA until January 1, 2019, when I felt as if I had left something behind. It was momentary, as if a pulse of light blinded me and I needed a second to reorient, to re-adapt. The first thing I abandoned was any assumption about what an exhibition does or how it should be organized. There, by the entrance, was the wall text, predictably serviceable, telling me of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the Congolese artist, arriving on the art world scene in 1989 with his models, impeccably-designed constructions that oscillated between architecture and sculpture and bore the not-humble name “extrêmes maquettes” or “extreme models.” And below this text, something else: a link to a Spotify playlist. It was nothing like I had encountered before, for when I see people wandering through a museum with headphones, I assume that they are listening to the audio commentary to an exhibition, not music. My memory of the wall text description of the playlist may be fuzzy, but a quick glance at my phone reveals that it features West African pop music from the 60s onwards—a roster of musicians such as Les Bantous de la Capitale, Pepe Ndombe, Youlou Mabiala, and Papa Wembe—all comprising a sonic environment for Kingelez’s creativity. It is an apposite connection. One the one hand, the playlist strove for a kind of a kind of range matched only by the exhibition, the first ever comprehensive showing of Kingelez’s work. One the other hand, its breadth matched the works on display, also bursting with something like the upbeat polyrhythms, guitar acrobatics, and shimmering harmonies that characterize Afropop music. The models on display are not just an assortment of buildings and cities made of materials like cardboard food wrappers and bottle caps. If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, “architecture is frozen music,” then these “extreme models” are not just physical embodiments of Afropop sounds and rhythms. Kingelez, who died of cancer in 2015, has instead left us with something that is uniquely his: a magpie geography born of a life marked by a singular, fertile, and generous imagination, one whose contours, conurbations, terrains, and buildings created a world that was at the same time universal and yet unmistakably personal.

I too would like to think that this is an essay about the universal and the personal. It is, ostensibly, an essay about Kingelez, about his show at MoMA, which you should see. Yet this essay is cloaked, maybe nestled momentarily, in the folds of another essay, one about things that you may give up or lose when entering a museum. It may veer between the two, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and as reader, you may experience a bit of disorientation. Did he just say that? Why is he talking about that now? As an incentive for you to keep on reading, I offer you this: it has a bittersweet ending. Now, about those things you may lose or give up. If it is winter, you may check in your coat, scarf, and gloves. If your bag is too big, you may have to check that in too, although you can probably get away by holding it close to your torso. A blockbuster show means that you will wait in line, and if you go to MoMA on a Friday afternoon, admission is free, so be prepared to wait in line then as well, which means that you will give up time. The crowds may be large, and this requires you to give up (or at least alter) your own idea of personal space. You may be looking at, say, a large Barnett Newman triptych and want to capture it with your phone. You back up so as to accommodate it within your phone’s limited picture frame and bump into someone behind you. Or, as is almost always the case, you wait for that moment when the space between you and the painting is empty. And as you tap on your phone’s screen to make sure that you are actually focusing on that Newman or that Bell-47D1 helicopter dangling precariously over the escalators, someone walks in front of you and becomes an unwilling study in what was supposed to be a quick but at least thoughtful document of your trip to this museum, on this day, at this very time. And sometimes you give up and surrender and let these people wander into your frame. You may even fancy yourself as some kind of cut-rate Thomas Struth documenting the life of a museum on that very day, that very time.

I did this last year. In one, I captured a young man and a woman shortly after an embrace in front of that very Barnett Newman. As soon as their embrace ended, the man took on a studied pose, arms crossed, one foot in front of the other, examining the painting. As for the woman, she retreated to her cell phone. And in my photograph, I just happened to frame her in the center panel of Newman’s triptych. In another, a man and woman hold each other as they peer through the large floor-height window into the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture garden. There is a thin strip of alloy that separates them from the window, so at least from my vantage point, they appear as if they are preventing each other from leaping into that void, into that garden. Later, when I was down in the sculpture garden, I spied two women and man sitting and laughing. They appeared to be comparing photographs taken on their phones. They were also speaking in French. In retrospect, I think these images did more than just capture people during unguarded moments. Perhaps they were a document of my own longing. It was an unseasonably hot September afternoon. I was far from home and wanting to unburden myself of the various bags I took with me from the airport. I gave up my carry-on at the coat check at the entrance on West 53rd street, but I think I gave up my heart as well. I may have been in love. It is hard to be objective about museums, after all.

It is also hard to be objective about Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. I had to give up my own pretensions as an architectural historian and engage Kingelez on his own terms. This is not to say, however, that I was not finding some kind of lifeline in my academic training. Architectural history is teeming with examples of cities summoned as if from mid air, of audacious plans and bold schemes, surprising glimpses at futures never realized. “Somewhere I have never travelled,” wrote e.e. cummings, words that come close to that sense of slackjawed incredulity when encountering, say, the glinting peaks and faceted surfaces of Bruno Taut’s crystalline Alpine Architecture, the relentless field of cruciform towers obliterating Paris in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse, the pastoral functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even the machine-like infrastructures and ziggurat terminals of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. These schemes point to something that momentarily sets the realm of architectural history apart from other disciplines, for ours is a field that does enliven the power of the counterfactual as a tool for writing history; which is to say that we look to the unbuilt and fantastical as a way to gauge a particular designer’s engagement with the world.


Placing City Dreams in such company seems apposite, for Kingelez’s models of buildings and cities can be thought of a larger scheme, one where the artist envisioned a world coming to terms with itself after independence from European colonial powers. As whimsical as these buildings may seem, they are, to repeat that old saw from architectural modernism, functional. They “work.” In City Dreams we see schools, hospitals, stadiums, restaurants, airports, train stations—evidence of a world organized for the sake of a real, growing, and vibrant population. Yet these expressive forms will resonate with contemporary architectural audiences as well for the exact opposite reason, for they seem to refer to themselves and themselves only. Take a glance at projects coming out of well-heeled architectural programs and you too will see something similar. Building facades and site plans in high-saturated pastels; an emphasis on surface effects; a general aesthetic that privileges the hard edge of a cartoon or the communicative imprimatur of a supergraphic: this is architecture that appears to suspend everything in favor of a kind of ecstatic imageability. Now this seems appropriate for our current time, one where Instagram becomes the primary conduit for ideas about architecture. And in those instances where I try to be the dutiful architectural historian and critic, a set of instincts fall into a kind of reflexive lockstep and I find myself accessing Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Charles Jencks, and especially Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, names we associate with polemical statements about the image-ability of architecture, a symptom of a condition that we diagnose using the woefully inappropriate yet established term Postmodernism. Call it a surrender, one where architecture culture has finally admitted a complete yielding to an ecology of images. But has not this always been the case? Is it better to say that architecture culture has reached what the late philosopher Vilém Flusser observed as the “dominance of technical images” over text in our world?

Odd how the first things that came to mind when encountering Kingelez were not buildings, but novels. Words. I thought of Jean d’Ormesson, whose 1971 novel, The Glory of the Empire, is not just an imaginary account of a lost world, but one that comes with its own fabrications, everything from imaginary sources to fake footnotes and make-believe indices. “It is not history that makes the historian,” wrote d’Ormesson, “but the reverse, and no historian does anything but give birth to his own universe.” How appropriate. Consider Jan Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, a travel narrative inside a fictional land. In both instances, the novel becomes a kind of mirror reflecting each author’s inner worlds, here cast not just as literary references but also as landscapes, cities, and buildings. The history of D’Ormesson’s Empire features very real references to very real Arnold Toynbee, Michel Foucault, Claude-Lévi Strauss, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And the two monumental buildings in his Empire (painted in fake architectural splendor by Monsu Desiderio, an actual pseudonym given to a group of 17th century Neapolitan artists) were “considered the masterpieces of architecture by Bramante, the three Sangalli, Vasari, Palladio, Ledoux, Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.” As for Morris, her vision of New Hav features a “less inspired” work by Le Corbusier and an electrical grid by Peter Behrens.

Thoughts of Afrofuturisms were inescapable as well. Mark Dery coined the term in 1993 to describe a body of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and address African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and prosthetically enhanced future.” As with any field, scholars and authors have been mapping Afrofutrisms’s origins and effects from the past and into the future, creating a divergent body of literature that covers everything from slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sun-Ra’s Space Is The Place, as well as the N.K. Jemison’s environmentally-themed science fiction novels. More recently, novelist Deji Bryce Olukuton imagined a solar catastrophe decimating infrastructures in the developed world and leaving the Nigerian space program the only organization capable of rescuing a stranded cosmonaut. The spacecraft to be launched from Abuja first appears as a bronze sculpture, which Olukton describes as “festooned with black-painted ziggurats and Gelede masks peering into new realms of time, the cultural heritage of Nigeria forged into a colossal sculptural vision of the future.”

This all speaks of this inchoate idea called “utopia”, one that seems to be on the lips and fingers of many a critic who distill Kingelez’s work into a kind of coherent project. Even the exhibition’s title conjures it, this notion of a dream city, this alternative to the present. Is it possible, then, that we do this work a disservice by labeling it as a “utopia”? For what are we thinking of when we conjure alternative schemes in distant futures, of realms and environments that are supposed to provide a balm of sorts for what ails us? I think of the late Denis Johnson, who wrote in Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Utopia is for people like us, a vessel for our thoughts and aspirations, and perhaps just that. It is a dead letter sent forward in time, never addressed, and never to be returned.


I wonder about other things left and given up at museums, never to be returned. I can come with lists of things I have forgotten at galleries and exhibitions: tote bags, headphones, my wallet, lunch. But there is something else, something fleeting that may gnaw at you the way it does at me. You realize that you left it when you recognize it as forgotten—which is a roundabout way of saying that you have actually remembered it. There are names and terms for this, yet these words fail to give it adequate contours and volumes. Something neither perceptible nor detectable persists and lingers about. Perhaps it is a feeling. Perhaps it is closer to synesthesia, the “colored hearing” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about in Speak, Memory, when “the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Is this feeling one where your sense of space is mapped out in time? I can make it from one corner to the room in twelve heartbeats … Eight have passed, you may think to yourself. I do sometimes. I also think of Svetlana Boym, who described nostalgia as an operation that “charts space in time and time and space,” which sounds as if she was reading the craggy peaks and irregular valleys of an electroencephalogram chart with the eye of a person reading tea leaves—which is to say with an affinity for patterns and coincidences. And perhaps that is what happens when you enter a museum, for instead of patterns and coincidences, that itch you feel is not so much a longing as it is a recognition that you have found something you did not know was lost and is now being returned to you.

These are the things returned to me as I write, fragments of a visit to Kingelez’s work at MoMA: a wall text; a brief explanation of the artist and his work; episodes of a life spent in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and then Kinshasa; Kingelez the school teacher turning his life to scissors, blades, and glue; models of buildings and cities constructed of cardboard, soda and beer cans; turquoise, magenta, palettes for a technicolor fantasy; imaginary places with French names, Réveillon Fédéral, Étoile Rouge, Aeromode; Magiciens de la Terre, a 1989 show at the Centre Pompidou, the first ever to feature his work; of worlds as cities, worlds as infrastructure; papier maché oceans; a box of “Special”, a toothpaste brand from elsewhere; buildings shaped like gossamer-winged butterflies, an accordion’s bellows, a shoe polisher, a shark’s fin (or an upturned fang); the Ville fântome, a city where citizens move between different zones along a “bridge of death”; Stade Kingelez, a soccer stadium; fields of greenery with scalloped edges; a container of Smint and a box of Bic ballpoints; a silhouette of a country priest, shushing, an image I remember as a squadron insignia from one of the World Wars, now pasted on the facade of one of Kingelez’s models; a woman standing on her toes in the corner holding her phone in the air, trying to capture the contents of the exhibit in one take; an elderly man squatting at eye level with one of the models, as if trying to have a conversation with it; security guards checking their email; buildings named after countries; the United Nations building reimagined as a giant conch shell; chatter hanging in the air above; an agricultural village transformed into skyscrapers; a city in the 31st century comprised of real and imaginary buildings from the 20th and 21st; a line for a pair of VR goggles at the end of the exhibit; that Kingelez was born in 1948; that he studied economics; that he died of cancer in 2015. It continues …

… and it all begs an important question, perhaps the one central to this essay: what do we recognize as lost when we enter a museum, when we encounter an exhibition like City Dreams, when we find ourselves in the midst of something so different, so thrilling? One thing we lose is a sense of space and time. Not “our” sense, but “a” sense of space and time, and by this I mean the space and time of Kingelez and his work. Any attempt to express what was going on in Kingelez’s inner and outer worlds is just that—an attempt. My ability to locate his work in space and time is born of the habits and practices I learned while studying and writing about architectural history, and one of these is telepresence. I can write, for example, that while Kingelez viewed his works as evidence of his stature as a “small god”, that his vibrant designs showed an initial affection for Mobuto Sese Seko Kutu’s doctrine of authenticité. I can write that he named one of his earliest sculptures after the day that Mobutu became President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (soon to be renamed Zaire). I know these things as facts culled from what others before me have written. Texts are my modes of transport, my conveyances to a space and time that will be forever unknown to me. An exhibition, then, only amplifies a similar sense of spatial and temporal dislocation—an eternal removal, so to speak. The only difference is that the “extreme models” on display, dutiful arranged by teams of curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, are “messages from a lost past,” as T.J. Clark once put it. They are emissaries from a world we will never be able to access.


Ville de Sète 3009 is one of the very last objects you will encounter. Completed while in residence at the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Southern France in 2000, it was one of Kingelez’s last large-scale works. It shares many of the characteristics of his earlier “extreme models.” There is, for instance, the same color palette, the same vivid ultramarines and oversaturated carmines. The buildings here are versions of the ones he likely saw while in residence there. Yet something else is happening here, for these buildings, on another glance, begin to look familiar. One, for instance, repeats butterfly- and sail-like shapes from earlier works. Another is comprised of two cylinders, and when viewed in plan, looks like a figure eight. Like his other cities, Ville de Sète 3009 is also surrounded by a moat. Rooftops appear to be connected by aerial walkways. There is also a more decided emphasis on pure geometries. And if you take a closer look, some of the buildings begin to look familiar. One is an echo of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. Another appears like a version of the Empire State Building, taller, narrower, conjured from transparent yellow plexiglas. There are even smaller, ziggurat-like structures that appear to reference Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin’s unbuilt Maison à gradins from 1914. These are signs that Kingelez is folding utopias into his own immediate world.


Ville de Sète 3009 (2000): One of Kingelez’s most ambitious sculptures representing an inventory of all the forms used in his prior works.

There are three ways to view this model. There nothing unusual about the first, for it is really the way everyone views larger-scale works or sculptures in a gallery. You approach one of Kingelez’s model and then you bend down to take a photograph, keeping yourself at eye-level. And when you stand up, you now see Ville de Sète 3009 from above, which means that yours is the bird’s-eye view, le regard surplombant, a vantage point affording you a glimpse at the world, a planner or an architect’s totalizing eye, the purview of modernity. The second is unusual because it requires you to look at the ceiling, something you almost would never do in one of MoMA’s galleries. Mounted directly above Ville de Sète 3009 is a large mirror that reflects the image of the city back at you. I imagine that this may be the point of view of an astronaut falling head first, coming down to Earth and peering up into Sète moments before splashing into the water, and like Bruegel’s Icarus, feet barely peering above the whitecaps. Or, is this peering at something on the ceiling a substitute for the artist’s point of view? And then there is the third, which requires you to wait in line for a pair of VR goggles and fly through a three-dimensional rendering of Ville de Sète 3009. In that virtual space, Sète becomes an image of an image of a city. Kingelez’s city has transformed from a cardboard city to a digitized realm rendered from protocols, software, grids, ones, zeroes, machine languages, and mouse clicks.

To fly in this version of Kingelez’s Sète is thrilling. I even felt a bit of momentary dislocation and an acute, yet fleeting, motion sickness that made me giddy. These were symptoms of my own recursion, flying in a digitized version of a city that existed in Kingelez’s world. And I thought of another recursion. Specifically, it was a passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a description of a balloon flight over Cartagena de Indias. And though I have read that novel several times, I remember the passage because it was blockquoted in a review written by Thomas Pynchon in 1988. In that piece, which I still think is one of the most astounding pieces of writing one can read, Pynchon declares that Garcia Márquez did nothing short of creating art, and that art like Love in the Time of Cholera gives us something we only realize we wanted when faced with it. Pynchon uses a beautiful term for this: “works that can even return our worn souls to us.” And perhaps that is what happened on that October afternoon. I gave myself to Kingelez’s world, and my own worn soul was given back to me.

“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) through January 1, 2019.

Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez