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City Seminar: Nicholas Simcik Arese

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Dreams and Illusions of the Suburban Self: Variations on Propertied Autonomy in Cairo’s First Affordable Gated Community Nicholas Simcik Arese, University of Cambridge

In Cairo’s first “affordable ” gated community, new homeowners aim to realise middle class aspirations through the promise of US-style propertied spatial norms. This presentation offers an ethnographic account of how homeowners’ interpret the word “freedom” to describe the isolation of suburban life, at once a “dream” (premised on imaginations of an “internal emigration,” outwards and into the future) and an “illusion” (premised on memories of historic Cairo, backwards and into the past). Recent work by anthropologist Talal Asad on post-revolutionary Egypt identifies tension between a “liberal incitement to individual autonomy” and autochthonous notions of freedom – self-realisation through modes of mutuality – resulting in a mass “subjectivization of morality” (2015). I situate these observations in the context of everyday property disputes in a private development for the poorest demographic to benefit from Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian neoliberalism. Soon after moving in, many homeowners’ dreams of severing cumbersome sociality become indivisible from nightmares of extreme subjectivization, at once legible in their physical surroundings: the same garden walls that are embellished for privacy are seen to provoke moral disarray otherwise attributed to inner-city life. Confronting this paradox, some homeowners feel compelled to creatively re-define the relationship between “freedom” and property beyond the paradigms of liberal autonomy and nostalgia.

The City Seminar, co-convened by the Department of Geography along with the Department of Architecture, explores the theme of ‘Infrastructures of Memory’ this year. A diverse line-up of speakers – including geographers, anthropologists, architects, artists and activists – will examine the various techniques, technologies, rituals, performances and materialities of memory and remembrance, and how they reinforce or subvert prevailing power relations.

This talk is part of the Infrastructural Geographies - Department of Geography series.

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